Eyes On: England v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

England and Wales both got their series of warm-up matches underway with a match at Twickenham. With Eddie Jones selecting the 31-man World Cup squad the next day, England went for a heavily experimental side that became even more experimental with the late withdrawals of Henry Slade and Sam Underhill, while Warren Gatland chose to put out what appeared to be his strongest available squad. Given the selections, I thought that I was going to be in for a long afternoon watching Wales dominate, but instead England came out the gate with early tries from Billy Vunipola and Joe Cokanasiga on the way to a 21-7 halftime lead. Though Wales grew into the game, England kept the scoreboard ticking over in the second half through the boots of George Ford and Elliot Daly, resulting in a 33-19 victory that brought an end to Wales’ unbeaten streak and stopped them going #1 in the World Rugby rankings following New Zealand’s loss to Australia.

England

Remember the name Tom Curry, because he looks like he could be a star of this World Cup and the next 10 years. At just 21 years old, he has become one of the stars of the England squad and has surely nailed down the starting berth at openside flanker. In this game, he cut out the silly penalties that he was conceding in the Six Nations, and replaced that with a couple of great line breaks. He was everywhere on the pitch, to the point that I was beginning to wonder if Eddie Jones had snuck on identical twin Ben in a second 7 jersey – did anyone count the players?!

Fans will be worried about an injury that saw him substituted just 30 minutes into the match, but hopefully that was more a precaution from the coaches as opposed to anything too serious.

Wales

Every time the World Cup comes around, the buildup seems to involve stories about how Warren Gatland’s Wales are going to be the fittest team at the tournament. While their fitness has been undeniable for years, this match appeared to suggest that they have spent too much time working on fitness and not enough time playing rugby.

Despite being almost the same side that won the Grand Slam earlier this year, they looked a shadow of themselves, dropping off tackles left, right and centre – and not just against the big runners Tuilagi, Vunipola and Cokanasiga. The lineout malfunctioned something horrible on a couple of occasions, gifting Luke Cowan-Dickie a try right before halftime. Though they did get themselves back in the game, they never really looked like they would challenge for the win. While this may help them go into the tournament as underdogs, they need to get back to form quickly to get some momentum ahead of their World Cup opener against Georgia.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, as this section is looking towards the squad selections, I will not be looking at England here due to the having already selected their squad before I could write this. I do however want to take a moment to praise Lewis Ludlam, who looked completely at home on his first cap and Anthony Watson, who looked great on his return to international rugby following injury – hopefully we will see him switched to 15 for the next match.

For Wales, there were very few players who came out with many positives, but I think that Aaron Wainwright will be feeling happy after playing the full 80 minutes. With Taulupe Faletau out and question marks surrounding the fitness of some of his rivals, he has a good chance of making the squad. Tomos Williams was a late withdrawal through injury, but if he is fit he will surely have to travel as Aled Davies did little to impress, while Gareth Davies continues to struggle with his kicking game.

The clear loser from this match is Gareth Anscombe, whose World Cup dreams are over after injuring his ACL. He picked up a knee injury early in the game and I felt that he should have been removed immediately as a precaution, but he instead played on as the medics felt that he could run the injury off, which either proved completely wrong or caused things to get worse. Aaron Shingler came off the bench to play his first match since getting injured in the 2018 Pro14 final and while it is great to see him back (I’d heard rumours that his rugby career was over), he looked so far off the pace that it’s hard to imagine him being ready for the World Cup.


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England’s Magic Victories

England’s Magic Victories

For sports fans, Sunday 14th July is a day that will live long in the memory. Lewis Hamilton won a 6th British GP in a race that saw Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen praised for some of the best racing in years. The Scottish Open reached its end. The Tour de France continued towards its first rest day. England’s men’s and women’s rugby 7s team won their respective tournaments to qualify Team GB for the Olympics. New Zealand’s beat England to win the Women’s Rugby Super Series title and remain #1 in the world. Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in the longest Wimbledon men’s final and England won the Cricket World Cup against New Zealand.

That win for Eoin Morgan’s men – by virtue of number of boundaries in the match, after the teams could not be separated over 50 overs and a super over – gave cricket one of its greatest finishes of all time and made England the only nation to have won the Men’s World Cups in cricket, football and rugby. While that stat may not be too surprising given the number of countries that play all 3 of these sports to an elite level, what makes this incredible is that all 3 of these victories have come following some form of extra time.

England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup victory saw them concede a late equaliser from Wolfgang Weber to make the scores 2-2 at the 90-minute mark, but 2 goals from Geoff Hurst in extra time – including one in the final seconds of the game – saw Bobby Moore lift the trophy as the nation celebrated a 4-2 victory.

The RWC2003 final saw defending champions and hosts Australia bring the scores level in the final moments, as Elton Flatly kicked a penalty to level the scores at 14-14. Extra time saw Flatley and Jonny Wilkinson trade a penalty each, before a Wilkinson drop goal won the game with just 26 seconds left on the clock.

Sunday’s final at Lord’s saw England hold New Zealand to a reachable total of 241, before struggling themselves with the bat. Requiring 15 runs from the last over, luck was on England’s side and they tied things up with the final ball, taking things to a super over. England got 15 runs from their over, but things got off to a bad start in New Zealand’s over as Jofra Archer started with a wide and was hit for 6 a few balls later. He tightened things up on the final balls though, leaving New Zealand needing 2 runs from the final ball to win. Martin Guptil got the first run to pull things level, but was unable to get back down the wicket quick enough and was run out, leaving the scores level and seeing England win through the tie-breaker of most boundaries in the match.

With all these matches, they have their moments that will be remembered for how differently they could have gone. Hurst’s first goal in extra time was an early case for goal-line technology, as the ball hit the crossbar, bounced off the ground and was cleared away, only for the assistant referee to decree that the ball had crossed the line. Ben Kay agonisingly dropped Matt Dawson’s popped pass with the try line at his mercy, while Wilkinson’s successful drop goal came with his weaker right foot after having missed 2 drop goal attempts earlier in the match. At Lord’s England’s saviour Ben Stokes was almost caught out in the penultimate over, only for Trent Boult to step backwards onto the boundary to turn the ball into a 6, while the next over saw an even luckier moment as a fielder’s throw deflected off his bat and reached the boundary to total 6 runs off that ball – though in hindsight it should have actually been 5 runs.

It’s safe to say England have had their fair share of luck, with the Rugby World Cup just months away, hopefully they haven’t used it all up at the weekend. Perhaps that will be England’s first victory in regular time. I’m not sure our hearts can take another close finish!

RWC2019: Predicting the England Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the England Squad

Ever since the Premiership finished for another season, thoughts have started to turn towards the World Cup and who Eddie Jones would be selecting to represent England in Japan. Having played a squad for the future against the Barbarians, Eddie Jones has spent the last couple of weeks bringing players in for training once 5 weeks had played since their last game of rugby, so was today able to name an official training squad with everyone available.

With England and the Premiership being one of my stronger areas of knowledge, it was no shock that this squad announcement saw me quickly starting to predict the 31-man World Cup squad as part of this ongoing series. Like the original article looking at the Wales squad, I have brought in the talents of a close friend and fellow rugby nut in the form of my colleague Phil. We will each pick our squads separately and I will then compare our selections to see how familiar they are. As a reminder, these are not the squads that we would be selecting (which I can imagine would look very different to this), but instead the squad that we think Eddie Jones will select.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, Phil and I think that Eddie Jones’ squad for the World Cup will contain:

Hooker

With Dylan Hartley confirmed to be missing the World Cup though injury, Jamie George becomes the clear starter. Luke Cowan-Dickie has been the next up of late and while Jack Singleton has made a strong push, both Phil and I feel that the Exeter hooker will take the second spot.

When it comes to Jack Singleton however, our opinions vary. I think that the former Worcester hooker will also travel to Japan to provide depth and competition for Cowan-Dickie, however Phil thinks that Jones will choose to take only 2 hookers, freeing up a spot elsewhere in the squad.

Prop

Mako Vunipola is one of the best props in the world, so it is no surprise that Phil and I both expect him to make the squad, provided he recovers in time. Joe Marler has come out of international retirement and we both feel that Jones will take him for his experience and scrummaging ability, while we also both feel that Ellis Genge will travel as either 2nd or 3rd choice loosehead depending on Vunipola’s fitness. On the other side of the front row, we both feel that Kyle Sinckler and Harry Williams have got ahead of Dan Cole on the pecking order, despite him being vastly more experienced at international level.

Given the state of Vunipola’s injury, I instructed Phil to also pick a player who would replace him in the squad should he fail to recover in time. On this we differed, as Phil went for a like-for-like swap by bringing in Ben Moon, whereas I felt that Jones would be happy with the combination of Genge and Marler, so choose to bring in Dan Cole as a more experienced presence in the squad.

Second Row

No massive surprises at lock, where both of us expect the usual 4 of Maro ItojeCourtney LawesJoe Launchbury and George Kruis – who has really come back to form this season – to all make their way onto the plane.

Due to Eddie Jones’ history of utilising Itoje and Lawes at 6, I think that he will also include Charlie Ewels in the squad as another specialist lock, whereas Phil has stuck to the big 4.

Back Row

rugby chris robshaw samoa
Former captain Chris Robshaw looks set to miss out on a place in the squad

It looks like Phil and I are in agreement over who Jones will take in the back row, though I’m also pretty certain we would see some different players if we were picking our own squads. Billy Vunipola at full fitness is one of the best number 8s in the world, so was an easy pick, while Tom Curry has all-but cemented the 7 jersey. Sam Underhill will keep the pressure on Curry, while he could also be used as a 6 and will also likely find himself competing with Mark Wilson for that starting spot. Lewis Ludlam and Alex Dombrandt (who missed out on selection for the most recent training squad) have had great seasons but come on too late for this tournament, though they should start featuring straight after with a view to 2023. Ben Morgan & Matt Kvesic haven’t even featured in the training squads despite stellar seasons, nor have Zach Mercer, Don Armand or Nathan Hughes, who has really fallen down the pecking order. Chris Robshaw is another who has found himself out of the loop after other players took advantage of the space his injury created. The 5th and final back row we each selected was Brad Shields, who has the versatility to cover multiple positions and also has experience of southern Hemisphere rugby.

Scrum Half

Though he has brought 3 scrum halves into recent squads, Eddie Jones generally prefers to have just 2 in his squads as otherwise it becomes difficult to spread reps. As such, Phil and I both found ourselves selecting just 2 players at the position when predicting the squad. Ben Youngs was the obvious option as he has remained Jones’ first choice despite times of poor form and also Leicester’s struggles this season. The 2nd place looked difficult, until the most recent training squad was announced. The way that Danny Care has dropped down the pecking order over the last 12 months is incredible, but it looks like the Quins 9 is no longer in the hunt, while Dan Robson appears to have missed out after a season that has been severely hampered by injury and illness. This left Ben Spencer and Willi Heinz fighting for the second spot. While Heinz has more experience, Saracens’ success and the high number of representatives in the squad led to both of us giving the advantage to Ben Spencer, who has a great all-round game, can kick off the tee if needed and is also young enough to push for the starting spot over the next 4-year cycle.

Fly Half

Going on the last season, Owen Farrell is now seen specifically as a fly half and looks bolted on to start, while he could push out to 12 if needed to make room for George Ford, who we both felt makes the squad almost by default given he is the only other experienced fly half Eddie Jones has regularly had with the squad during recent international windows.

Beyond this, there were not really many other options, with Danny Cipriani the other name in the current training squad and Marcus Smith having come into training camps instead of Cipriani during the Six Nations. Perhaps it is Phil’s Gloucester bias coming through, but he managed to find a spot for Danny Cipriani in the squad, however I can’t see it happening given how little Jones has included him since the Summer Tour to South Africa and instead feel that Jones will take just 2 specialised 10s and rely on players elsewhere to cover the position in an emergency.

Centre

Henry Slade has become the constant in recent England squads and we both felt that his performances for England and Exeter solidified his seat on the plane. Ben Te’o gets picked by Jones regardless of how little rugby he has played, so will surely make the squad despite being currently unattached, while we also both agree that Manu Tuilagi makes the squad (if fit) as when he is on form he is a game changer who can cover either 12 or 13.

Both of us felt that Jones would go for 4 specialist centres (we have both counted Daly as part of the back 3 but he will also give some depth here), but we have varied in our final pick. Phil has gone for Bath’s Jonathan Joseph, who has been defensively solid at 13 and can also cover the wing if needed. However, given all the back 3 options in the training squad are able to cover wing and also 13 at a push, I instead picked Piers Francis, who has come off a strong finish to the season for Northampton and provides a playmaker option at 12, while he can also cover fly half in an emergency.

Back 3

Our thoughts surrounding the back 3 were very similar, the one difference being that Phil had 6 spaces left to fill, whereas I only had 5. Jonny May and super-versatile Elliot Daly have become ever-presents in this squad, while we both think that Anthony Watson’s speed and ability in the air have brought him back into the squad after a lengthy injury layoff. All 3 of these players are relatively lightweight, pacy individuals, but Joe Cokanasiga and Jack Nowell add a more physical attribute to the position group, while Nowell is able to cover 13 and 15 as well.

With Chris Ashton having pulled out for personal reasons, Ollie Thorley untested at international level and Denny Solomona & Nathan Earle having dropped down the pecking order of late – let’s not even get into Alex Goode! – I felt that there was nobody else that Jones would choose to include at this position, which led to me using the 31st pick on Charlie Ewels, however Phil has chosen to include a bolter in Bath and former England 7s star Ruaridh McConnochie, who took advantage of injuries in the Bath back line to have a great season.


So on the whole, we had largely the same squad, with just the last couple of positions on the fringes of the squad differing. This doesn’t surprise me too much considering how much we talk about rugby, we have probably converged our opinions over the last 6 years. Interestingly, I found myself putting more numbers into the pack to boost the chances of taking control of the game, whereas Phil included some very exciting backs to take advantage of the possession the forwards win.

Who do you think makes it onto the plane?

Alternative England 23

Alternative England 23

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

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

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

Starting XV

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

Bench

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

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

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there’s my XV, who makes yours?

Eyes On: England v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

With Wales having already secured the Six Nations title with their victory over Ireland, the tournament finale between England and Scotland was a dead rubber except for the rivalry between the 2 countries. England came out the blocks quickly with Jack Nowell crossing in the 2nd minute and they added 3 more tries by the half hour mark through Tom Curry, Joe Launchbury and Jonny May before Stuart McInally scored what appeared to be a consolation try to make the halftime score 31-7. The game was flipped on its head after the break though as Scotland scored tries through Darcy Graham, Magnus Bradbury, Finn Russell and Sam Johnson put Scotland ahead, only for George Ford’s converted try on the last play of the game to level the scores at 38-38 and end the game as the highest scoring draw in international rugby history.

Momentum swings

Maybe England hadn’t heard the result of the Wales match by the time they kicked off as they came out with such a fierce determination to rack up the score. Their attacks were clinical and they used their options in the back line to manipulate the Scottish defence in ways that made it easy for them to finish their tries. Scotland weren’t necessarily playing bad rugby, but they couldn’t get much going in attack that was dangerous enough to trouble England – who were flying up in defence and putting them under heavy pressure – and they struggled defensively to deal with all the attacking options their opponents had.

McInally’s try from a charged down kick and half time coming just a few minutes later brought England’s momentum to a complete half and gave the Scottish time to recover and reset. When the second half started, suddenly Scotland were cutting out the individual errors and starting to make some ground against an England defence that was no longer getting in their faces as fast. England were still making big metres in attack, but the accuracy of the first half was gone and they were beginning to make individual handling errors that would prove costly come the final whistle.

This was an extreme but perfect example of just how easy it is for a switch in momentum to completely change a game. Scotland will be hoping that they don’t find themselves in this position again, but given their injury issues this tournament it is a testament to the character of their team that they were able to turn the game around after such an awful opening half hour.

Finishers and Game Changers

Eddie Jones may call them “Finishers”, Harlequins may call them “Game Changers”. Yep, I’m on about substitutes. No matter what you call them, they’re all doing the same jobs. But perhaps Jones’ name for them has a bit more meaning that it originally appears.

I suggested after the Wales loss that Eddie Jones did not trust his replacements to change the game and that seemed to be the case here as well. As momentum first started to turn in Scotland’s favour and with Ellis Genge having already come on early for the injure Ben Moon, the only changes Jones made were to replace Mark Wilson and Kyle Sinckler (who had both been looking pretty impressive) and replacing them with Brad Shields and Dan Cole, who failed to have as much of an impact on the game. In the backs, it was only in the final 10 minutes that Jones began to make changes despite the Scottish having taken complete control well before this.

In contrast, the moment Scotland scored a couple of quick tries, Gregor Townsend recognised the shifting momentum and made a raft of changes, bringing on more experienced players like Greig Laidlaw, Josh Strauss and Fraser Brown on to take control of the game.

Some of Eddie Jones’ selections have been questioned in recent years, but in this match it felt like he did not trust his replacements to be able to change the game until he had no choice but to give them a shot. For such an experienced and talented coach, in this match he was thoroughly outplayed by Gregor Townsend. If England are to avoid these second half collapses, Jones needs to have a think about the players he is selecting on the bench and how they can be used.

Shoulder Boy

There were hearts in mouths for England fans in the second half as referee Paul Williams went to the TMO to look at a late challenge by Owen Farrell on Darcy Graham. Graham had kicked on and Farrell appeared to be trying to close him down but ended up clattering into him late, but the replays also showed that Farrell did not use his arms at all in the challenge.

The incident reminded me a lot of Samu Kerevi’s hit on Leigh Halfpenny during the Autumn Tests in that neither of them seemed to make much of a legitimate attempt to charge down the kick and instead took out the kicker after the ball was gone. What I found really interesting is that Paul Williams decided to punish Farrell for the late hit but did not take into account the use of a shoulder rather than the arms as he felt that Farrell was protecting himself rather than trying to make a tackle. While I can understand where he is coming from, this seems like an odd decision to me considering tackles are generally judged on their outcome rather then the players intent. For me, this was a yellow card incident and should have probably cost England the game.

This is the 3rd incident including a no-arms tackle by Owen Farrell in the last 10 Tests. Whether you agree with the decisions or not, Farrell’s uncompromising defence is such a big part of what makes him the great fly half that he is. He just needs to be a bit more careful with using his arms or one of these days a tackle could prove costly.

Eyes On: England v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

England looked to get over their loss to Wales with a match at home against Italy on Saturday. The home team made just a handful of changes and their strength showed as they put the Italians to the sword, going in 31-7 ahead at half time courtesy of tries from Jamie George, Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi and Brad Shields. Tuilagi and Shields each added after the break and tries from George Kruis and Dan Robson completed a 57-14 victory.

Bish! Bash! Bosh!

England only made a couple of changes for this match, but they were notable ones as Ben Te’o came in for Henry Slade (with Tuilagi shifting out to 13) and Joe Cokanasiga came in on the wing. The England back line has generally been rather lightweight, but the trio of Te’o, Tuliagi and Cokanasiga had a greater combined weight than heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. A very different approach to usual from England and one that overwhelmed the Italian defence.

The massive midfield of Te’o and Tuilagi frequently forced the Italians to bunch in midfield to deal with them – not helped by the loss of Michele Campagnaro and his replacement Tommaso Castello to injury before half time, leaving Ian McKinley in the centre – and this created space out wide for Cokanasiga and the smaller, faster England backs to exploit. Cokanasiga was a monster in this game, dominating Angelo Esposito in attack and finishing with 107 metres off 8 carries. Even when he was eventually stopped, he always looked able to get his hands free for an offload to a supporting player.

Tuilagi had a great game and looked much more of a threat at 13 where he has that extra bit of space to exploit, running for 82 metres from 8 carries, behind only Cokanasiga for metres made. Te’o may not have been so obvious in attack, but the threat that he possessed played a big factor in creating the space for those outside him.

In defence, there was room for improvement as England’s narrow defensive tactic did lead to Tuilagi occasionally struggling to cover across and Cokanasiga making the wrong decision, but that is always the risk with a group that have not played together before.

Of course, it must be taken into account that Italy are not going to have been the hardest test of this line-up. While I think Henry Slade has done a great job in this tournament and has been a vital cog in defence, I would like to see England continue with this back line against Scotland (though again, the injuries in their squad mean that the resilience of the Scottish defence will likely be somewhat lacking) and develop it into another legitimate option with the World Cup looming.

Predictable Italy

Italy had their moments of success in attack, but not as many as they would have liked. Despite making 160 carries (40 more than England), they made only 373 metres compared to the home team’s 643.

While part of this can be attributed to losing such impressive players in midfield and also finishing with a prop in the back row, their attacks were often too easy for England to deal with. Italy had the ball 61% of the game, yet for all that possession they only made 5 clean breaks over the 80 minutes, compared to England’s 22.

Much of this can be attributed to their predictable attacking making it easy for a strong English defence. The Italians have a number of impressive ball carriers in the pack yet they are largely wasted by always taking the crash ball off the scrum half. There is no variation in the game, which makes is easy to defend. If they were to start crashing their ball carriers off 9, back inside from the 10, outside the 10 or even further out into the back line, then they would make so many more metre and generate quicker attacking ball to take advantage of a retreating defence.

Tito Tebaldi has looked impressive when given space to attack into, but I do not thing either he or Tommasso Allan have the ability to control a game and get the best out of the team in the same way as their opposite numbers. Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez were such a big part of the Italian team of the ‘90s and early ‘00s and they have never been fully replaced. If Conor O’Shea can find the talent at 9 and 10, then it will not take much to unlock this team.

Innovation

Scrums are not something that can often be considered fun to watch these days, but here was a very interesting moment at one of the set pieces in this game. With England set to have the feed around halfway on the right hand side of the pitch, Joe Cokanasiga packed down at number 8 while Billy Vunipola placed himself in the back line.

Putting a winger into the back row is not often going to work well – if you haven’t watched the clip of Jonny May at flanker against Argentina, then you’re missing out! – but Cokanasiga looked at home at the back of the scrum and with him being only slightly lighter than Billy Vunipola, there was no real drop in quality during the scrum. The ball came out to the back line, where Vunipola took the crash ball into the Italian midfield.

While I am not sold on Cokanasiga as the regular starter yet, I do like the willingness of the England attack to try something different when he is on the pitch. With Vunipola in the back line, it is understandable to expect him to take the crash ball here, but having done that on this occasion, I would not be surprised to see England take this a step further and use the tactic again in the future, but with Vunipola either as a decoy runner or even as a pivot, similar to what we see from Mako Vunipola at times in open play.