Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

We are now less than 2 weeks away from the 2023 edition of the Six Nations, and boy is this edition going to be exciting. Wales and England come in with new head coaches, while Italy arrive with genuine belief of picking up some wins after wins over both Wales and Australia in 2022. And to top it all off, these 5 matches will likely go a long way to helping the coaches select their squads for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, with only a couple of pre-tournament warm-ups remaining after the Six Nations.

And so with the initial squads announced, it’s time for my annual look at each squad and selection of a player to keep your eyes on. And with the World Cup so close, I considered looking at some players who are maybe on the fringes of the squads, but found myself largely selecting young players who at this point are probably pushing to start but may not yet be household names. Who would your picks be?

England

Billy Vunipola’s disappointing return to the England squad is over and Tom Curry is out injured (but would hopefully not be used at 8 by Steve Borthwick), so with Zach Mercer still in France, this is a chance for Alex Dombrandt to try making the 8 shirt his own. A strong but dynamic carrier and real threat at the breakdown, the arrival of Harlequins’ Nick Evans as attack coach will surely get the best out of the Cardiff Met alumnus.

France

France did things right by completely rebooting their squad at the start of the cycle with 2023 in mind, so most places in the 23 are now secured. However the retirement of Virimi Vakatawa for medical reasons and a recent knee injury ruling out Jonathan Danty for 3 months, the centre position looks a little thin. Step up Yoram Moefana, who will provide another hard carrying option in the midfield. If he can form a strong connection with Romain Ntamack and Gaël Fickou, could he oust Danty from the starting spot come the World Cup?

Ireland

Sticking in the centres here and Stuart McCloskey had a strong Autumn campaign at 2 with Bundee Aki missing through a ban. Well Aki is back now but McCloskey also remains courtesy of Robbie Henshaw’s ban. A strong carrier with an eye for an offload, the 30-year-old Ulster star should have arguably earned more caps, having not yet even hit double figures! Can he do enough to beat out Aki for the 12 shirt? This could be the difference between a place in the World Cup squad or watching the tournament at home.

Italy

The most-capped player on this list, Jake Polledri was well on his way to becoming one of the very best number s in the game until a horror injury left his career in the balance. Well he’s back and included in the Italy squad, but has had little playing time for Gloucester this season. At his best, he has the pace to exploit a gap and the strength to make ground with every carry, while he is also an accomplished jackal. The question right now is just what level he can reach ahead of the World Cup and how much we will see him in this Six Nations.

Scotland

While Duhan van der Merwe has one wing secured, Darcy Graham’s injury presents an opportunity for Kyle Steyn. Eligible to play for Scotland via his mother, Steyn brings pace and power to the wing, which is arguably something that Scotland have often not had enough of in their lineup. Scored 4 tries on his first start for Scotland against Tonga and will surely be keen to secure his place in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Wales

Wales’ late capitulation against Australia in the Autumn may have brought about the end of Wayne Pivac’s tenure, but it was also the Test debut for Ospreys’ Joe Hawkins. A talented playmaker who appeared to make a real difference in getting the team firing against the Wallabies after a series of dour performances, he also seems to fit the Warren Gatland template of a big physical 12 as he is comfortable taking the ball to the line and taking the contact himself. At just 20 years old, Wales may have finally found the long-term successor to Jamie Roberts and Hadleigh Parkes.


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Borthwick’s Bolters

Borthwick’s Bolters

And so it is official, Steve Borthwick has left his role with Leicester Tigers to become England’s new head coach, with Kevin Sinfield coming with him. Borthwick now has just a handful of weeks until the Six Nations, and then only a couple of matches after that before he must name his squad for the Rugby World Cup.

But who will Borthwick pick? While it is hard to imagine him making wholesale changes to the suad so close to the tournament, every head coach will have some players that they will feel can do the job for them—as we saw consistently with Eddie Jones leaving out many of the form English players despite every fan and pundit calling for their inclusion. So who has found themselves surplus to Eddie Jones’ needs who could find themselves now getting a chance under Borthwick? Today I will be looking at some of the options.

Ollie Lawrence

Let’s start with the obvious one. England have been far too reliant on Manu Tuilagi under Jones, especially considering how often he is injured, while the great promise of the Smith/Farrell/Tuilagi midfield was an absolute dud when finally used this autumn. Meanwhile Ollie Lawrence was almost single-handedly winning games for Bath.  A wrecking ball with great hands in attack, he has also been a big factor in defence, and has been key to Bath’s revival and arguably one of the best players in the Premiership this season.

Joe Marler

An experienced loosehead and specialist scrummager, Marler hasn’t featured for England since Autumn 2021, with Mako Vunipola coming back into consideration as backup to Ellis Genge. Well, that resulted in the England scrum being pushed back by New Zealand and folded in on itself by the Springboks. With a strong scrum key to beating the top teams and an immediate improvement needed, the return of Marler through to the end of the Rugby World Cup seems an obvious selection.

George McGuigan

One of the most consistent try scorers in recent Premiership Rugby seasons, McGuigan has always been a solid all-rounder, but for some reason found himself behind a number of younger options including his own Newcastle back-up Jamie Blamire in the England pecking order under Jones. Should arguably be one of the top 3 hookers for England, and with Luke Cowan-Dickie’s torpedo dives at players’ knees just asking for him to suffer a concussion, an argument could easily be made for McGuigan to become a regular in the 23.

George Ford

With Owen Farrell the long-term incumbent at 10 and Marcus Smith the hot young prospect who has come into the XV, George Ford has somewhat fell by the wayside. I will be the first to admit that his previous times with England have not wholly impressed me, but Borthwick found a way to get the best out of him for Leicester last year, so could be tempted to bring in another experienced playmaker that he is familiar with, especially when Farrell is able to play outside him at 12.

 Ollie Hassell-Collins & Cadan Murley

A pair of impressive young players who have quietly gone about their business to become 2 of the most deadly try scorers in the Premiership, both have found themselves frequently overlooked in favour of inexperienced viral sensation Henry Arundell. With  and 7 league tries respectively, and both over 200 metres made and in double digits for players beaten in the Premiership this year, if Borthwick chooses to play style of rugby that involves more attacking through the backs, he will surely be hoping that they can follow in the footsteps of recent new internationals Rio Dyer and Mark Nawaqanitawase.

Alex Dombrandt

One of the most impressive English back rows in recent years (which considering the depth of options available to England is saying something!) Dombrandt was never able to secure a spot under Eddie Jones and fell back behind Billy Vunipola, who looked a shadow of himself at Test level. With Borthwick coming in and surely looking to create a more dominant pack and an attack with more carrying options, Dombrandt has the chance to try securing the shirt ahead of Zach Mercer’s return to England.

Anthony Watson

Formerly a regular on the wing under Jones, injury robbed Watson of almost all of last season, and appears to have seen him fall down the pecking order in that time. However, having moved to Leicester, nobody will know better than Borthwick just what he is capable of, while he also provides cover across the back 3. And with Jonny May not looking at his best this season following a second half of the year disrupted by COVID and injury, could Watson come in as a direct replacement for the Gloucester wing?


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Next Man Up

Next Man Up

Eddie Jones is gone. Whether you feel that it was the right decision or not—personally I say that it’s 5 years late—England are now in a situation where they have just sacked their head coach less than a year our from the Rugby World Cup, leaving Jones’ replacement with currently just 8 matches (5 in the Six Nations, then 2 Tests against Wales and 1 against Fiji in Autumn) until the tournament starts.

So who takes over from Jones? Unlike Wales—who announced Warren Gatland’s return alongside Wayne Pivac’s sacking—England have simply announced that Richard Cockerill has stepped up from Forwards coach to interim Head Coach. But who will get the actual job?

The Missed Opportunities

First off, a quick mention of 2 names that should have been very exciting options, but have just in the last few weeks signed new long-term contracts in France. It feels like just a matter of time until Ronan O’Gara is leading a Test team, but his new contract at La Rochelle means that he is likely holding on for the Irish job once Andy Farrell’s tenure comes to an end. Meanwhile defensive mastermind Shaun Edwards is committed to France through to the end of the 2027 Rugby World Cup, and you can’t help wonder the force that England could have been had he been part of the England set-up. Our loss has been Wales’ and France’s gain.

And it’s also worth just taking a moment to mention Warren Gatland, who would have likely been on the shortlist had the RFU not been beaten to his signing by the WRU—amazing how such an incompetent union have made the RFU look like clowns in their respective reactions to the Autumn campaigns.

Steve Borthwick

Probably the favourite to take over, Borthwick impressed as Forwards coach of Japan and then England under Eddie Jones, so has experience of coaching at Test level. And since then, his immediate turnaround of Leicester from being at threat of relegation to being Premiership champions has shown his capability as a head coach. You also have to imagine that he would want to bring Kevin Sinfield with him, which would be a very attractive prospect for everyone except Leicester Tigers. His knowledge of the players will be helpful with so little time until the World Cup, but with only 2 and a half seasons’ experience as a head coach, is this a little too soon for him?

Scott Robertson

I’ve spent the last 3 years arguing that Razor should have got the All Blacks job instead of Ian Foster, and it’s hard to imagine him not being offered the job after the World Cup, so to sneak in one year earlier and sign him to a contract through to the end of 2027 would be a monumental coup. Under his leadership, the Crusaders have been one of the best teams in the world, and the thought of England playing the structured play that also encourages heads-up rugby is mouth-watering, but bringing in him now would give him very little time to learn the players and establish his style of play.

Mark McCall

Though their success over the last 10 years has been tarnished by clearly breaking the salary cap to give them an unfair advantage, it must be noted just how well coached Saracens have been. And with so many current or former Saracens players in the England squad, it would certainly help any transition period if McCall were to take over as head coach, while someone so experienced as a Premiership Rugby head coach will surely also have good knowledge of the wider talent available to England. However his only international experience is a short spell with Ireland A so, assuming he even has an interest in the role, would the lack of Test experience count against him?

Rob Baxter

As long-term Director of Rugby as Exeter Chiefs, Baxter comes with many of the same positives as McCall, he has previously distanced himself from the job and again lacks any significant experience of coaching at Test level.

Richard Cockerill

He may have been named the interim head coach, but don’t rule out Cockers, especially if time continues to drag on with nobody else being announced, he will surely start to look even more attractive. Has plenty of experience as a head coach/director of rugby at club level, and while he may have limited experience of coaching at Test level, having been part of Eddie Jones’ team for the last year will mean that he will be familiar with the players in the wider squad and also know what they have been doing, which could help with any transition. Cockerill could also be interesting from a contractual point of view, as while I imagine that all the other names above would want a contract through to the end of 2027 with a guarantee of safety if things go wrong in France due to the quick turnaround, I could see Cockers being given a 1-year contract just to take the team through to the start of the next cycle, at which point they could assess the market and bring in the best name or choose to stick with him if things go well; or they could give him a 3-year contract, which would still give a replacement 2 years to establish themselves ahead of RWC2027.

Is there anyone else you feel should be in contention? Who do you want to see leading England in 2023?


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

After 5 weeks of action, the Autumn Nations Series reached its finale with England hosting South Africa. The World Champions’ selection was hampered a little by the absence of any Irish, English or French-based players, due to the Test being played outside World Rugby’s Test window, and yet their pack’s dominance in the early scrums gave Faf de Klerk an early shot at the posts, but his radar was slightly off, while England captain Owen Farrell missed an even easier opener of his own just minutes later. Farrell finally opened the scoring after 12 minutes after Frans Malherbe was penalised at a scrum. A strong carry in the 22 from Evan Roos allowed de Klerk to pull things level after Alex Coles was pinged for a high tackle, while Farrell again missed from in front of the posts just minutes later. South Africa tried to make the hosts pay for Farrell’s misses with a clever move at the front of a 5m lineout, but the defence jus managed to hold Siya Kolisi up over the line. As the game reached the half hour mark, Damian Willemse kicked a drop goal to give the visitors the lead, and then just minutes later, he countered a long kick and set Willie le Roux away down the right wing to draw the defence and release Kurt-Lee Arendse, who stepped marcus Smith for the opening try. Willemse’s next touch saw him again get a break going as he arced around Maro Itoje and offloaded inside to release Arendse, but the wing’s grubber to the corner was blocked by Freddie Steward as England looked vulnerable. England’s pack were struggling to deal with their opponents in the set piece, and as the half came to an end, de Klerk added another 3 points off the tee for a 3-14 lead at the break.

England rung the changes at the break, with the entire front row being replaced and Jack Nowell on for Tommy Freeman, but a timely counterruck from the Springboks turned the ball over on the edge of the 22 to allow Willemse another simple drop goal. A great take in the air by Freddie Steward put England on the front foot and allowed a further half-break from Smith that earned a penalty, which Farrell landed, but a moment of stupidity from Jonny Hill gave South Africa a penalty that was kicked to the corner, and Tom Curry soon found himself going to the bin for illegally slowing down the ball in the following phases, and it only took a couple of phases with the man advantage before Eben Etzebeth scored the second try of the game, though he appeared to be on the floor when he played the ball. As the hour approached, the Boks won another scrum penalty against the 7-man English pack, and de Klerk bisected the posts from halfway to stretch the lead to 21 points. England were dealt a lifeline just after, though, as Thomas du Toit was sent off just minutes after coming on for a dangerous high challenge, while Jacques Nienaber inexplicably chose the same moment to remove Willie le Roux. Wth the man advantage, England were starting to find some space, but it was not until Ben Youngs took a quick-tap penalty in the South African 22 that they really made use of this, as they used the quick ball to send Henry Slade over for the try, while the Boks also lost de Klerk and Kolisi to injury for the remaining minutes. But the visitors defence held firm and if anything put the hosts under more pressure, to secure a 13-27 victory.

Eddie’s England

How can you tell that a Test-level coach doesn’t have a clue? Watch their team try to take on South Africa at their own game. Despite plenty of prior matches that show the way to trouble South Africa is to play expansive rugby, and that by trying to take them on up front and through the kicking game is almost certainly going to see you lose, Eddie Jones chose the latter and England paid the price.

Selecting Mako Vunipola to take on Frans Malherbe—who treated him as a plaything in the RWC2019 final—always felt like a strange decision and, like in 2019 was proved to be completely wrong as he was dominated at the scrum, while Tommy Freeman was not so much thrown in at the deep end, more thrown into shark-infested water with bloody meat attached to him. And to top it all off, keeping Owen Farrell as kicker when he was struggling with an injury that affected his kicking was idiocy given Marcus Smith was on the pitch. Were it not for Thomas du Toit’s moronic red card, England would have had no way back in this match, and even then, the last 10 minutes were more panicked play than structured attack.

And if you want a final indictment of Eddie Jones and his coaching, you just have to look at the build-up to Etzebeth’s try. England dealt with the restart and eventually won a penalty against Faf de Klerk, only for Jonny Hill to manhandle the scrumhalf after the whistle, resulting in the penalty being reversed. With England under pressure, Curry was forced to illegally intervene and was righty carded as the team were already on a warning for repeated infringements. Then when South Africa were stopped on the England try line, the players around the ruck were too busy appealing to the referee to deal with the ball spurting out of the ruck and Etzebeth recovering and stretching for the line.

Discipline starts with the coach. If they can’t get that right, and then pick completely the wrong tactics, then it’s time for them to move on. The sooner England are away from Eddie Jones, the better.

Dominant

The South African scrum is one of the most feared weapons in Test rugby, and for good reason. Such is the strength in depth of the Springbok front rows, there are genuine debates over whether the starting front row or bench are better. England has one of the strongest scrums in World Rugby, so to see them demolished so effectively just shows the quality of the Boks.

But you still see the Boks get it wrong sometimes, as they get pinged before the ball comes in for putting too much pressure on. In the case of most teams, you could understand wanting to push things to get a slight advantage ahead of the ball coming in, but if any team has the quality and the weight of pack to just hold off a moment, they will probably still be able to dominate the scrum, while if anything, it will likely then highlight the opposition’s own attempts to get an advantage before the ball comes in.

In a closer game, that could be the difference between a win and a loss.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v New Zealand

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v New Zealand

After mixed results against Argentina and Japan, England’s Autumn Nations Series campaign stepped up a gear with the arrival of New Zealand. The All Blacks were coming in off the back of 2 wins but very different levels of performance in the previous weeks, but this week they ere ahead after just a matter of minutes as Dalton Papali’i read the England lineout move and intercepted Jack van Poortvliet’s pass to go over from long range. England were struggling to get a hanhold in the game early on, and when a scrum penalty allowed New Zealand to kick to the corner, the All Blacks maul found it all too easy to work their way over for a second try in the opening 10 minutes, Codie Taylor getting the armchair ride to the line. Going 0-14 down finally spurred an England attack, and after winning a penalty they kicked to the corner, only for their maul set-up to be pinged for obstruction. Ill discipline and inaccurate play were costing England, and when Ardie Savea pounced on van Poortvliet not controlling the ball well enough at the back of a ruck deep in his own 22, it sparked an attack that ended in a try beneath the posts for Rieko Ioane, only for the TMO to spot a neck roll from him a few phases earlier to let England off. England’s next attack ended in a fumble from Jonny Hill close tot he try line, but when Richie Mo’unga saw a pass fly out of his hands horribly wrong in his own 22, England were gifted with a central scrum, a penalty against Tyrel Lomax gave Owen Farrell the simplest of kicks at goal after 25 minutes. As the clock ticked down on the first half, New Zealand had time for one last attack, only for Jordie Barrett to knock on with the line at his mercy, and while an attempted tackle by Ellis Genge hat involved head-to-head contact was ignored by officials, a penalty against the prop for offsie allowed Jordie Barrett to kick the All Blacks into a 3-17 lead at the break.

With Owen Farrell struggling with a knock picked up lae in the first half, Marcus Smith took over kicking duties and had an easy first kick just minutes into the second half, and a clever delayed pass from the flyhalf on the edge of the visitors 22 sent Manu Tuilagi up to the try line, but after a series of pick-and-gos from the forwards, New zealand won the penalty for the latcher going off their feet while the backs were left looking at the wide open space they had in front of them. And they were made to pay minutes later as a clever crossfield kick to Caleb Clarke coming infield allowed him to release the looping Rieko Ioane, who otpaced everyone to run in unchallenged from is own 22. A clever flat pass from Owen Farrell set Luke Cowan-Dickie charging into the 22, but yet another attack came to nothing as Brodie Retallick waited for van Poortvliet to pick up the ball and hooked his arm as he passed to force the knock on. England kept coming with the attacks, but New Zealand’s defence were finding it too easy to stop them when things got dangerous and turn the ball over. England continued to create chances that they couldn’t finish, while as the game entered the final 10 minutes, Beauden Barrett landed a drop goal to stretch the lead to 19. Barrett’s next involvement was much more cynical, killing the ball as Marcus Smith’s break was stopped just short of the line, and he found himself sent to the bin, while Will Stuart was adjudged to have scored his first England try on the next phase. And England took full advantage of the extra man to strike again just minutes later, with Freddie Steward going over out wide, Marcus Smith cutting the deficit to 7 with the conversion. And with just 2 minutes remaining, England completed the turnaround as Stuart crashed over from close range, Smith’s conversion trying the game with a minute left. It all came down to the restart, and ENgland secured the ball, with Marcus Smith choosing to kick the ball out to end the game as a 25-25 draw.

Learning opportunity

This is not a match that Jack van Poortvliet will look back at fondly. The young scrum half has been fantastic for England, but had a torrid day against the All Blacks.

Right from the opening minutes, the rote attack of Eddie Jones’ England was laid bare as they looked to throw a long lineout and then go off the top, and while a more experienced 9 may have recognised that the lineout going beyond the 15m line would have given the rear gunner extra time to get up in the passing lane, this was missed by the young Tiger, who saw his pass picked off as easy as you like for an early New Zealand try.

Not long after this, a box kick sailed far too long, allowing New Zealand to gather and call the mark with no pressure, while at the other end of the pitch, he was caught out taking too long at the back of a ruck where the ball was to the side of the hindmost foot rather than under it—therefore technically being out of the ruck—and this gave Ardie Savea the extra fraction of a second he needed to attack him and make the tackle during the kick motion. And then sadly his final act of the game was to knock on as Brodie Retallick perfectly timed a hook of his arm as he tried to play away from the breakdown.

While it was a poor game, it was probably actually what a young 9 like him needed. It was a reminder of the extra pressures of playing at Test level and the quality that you will be up against. Your kicks and passes have to be that extra inch more accurate, and there is that yard less before a defender is in your face. The key for him is to look back at this match as a learning experience and aim to be back to his usual standard next week.

Of course, that is assuming Eddie doesn’t do his usual thing of now dropping him from the 23 and all future squads off the back of 1 bad game…

Playing with the big boys

New Zealand may not be the team that they used to be after years of stagnation under Ian Foster. However, what they still are is a bunch of very skilled—and more importantly very big—players. And England showed exactly how not to attack against them. While they frequently got through the All Blacks’ defensive line with a clever tip on or flat pass at the line, they then tried to make it a physical battle to get over the line.

So let’s look at that New Zealand defence. While you may rightly query Bower’s workrate in defence, he is as physical as anyone else in the New Zealand front row, while playing Scott Barrett at 6 added extra physicality, Papali’i adds much more than Sam Cane at 7, and everyone knows that Ardie Savea is physicality personified! Then in the backs, playmakers Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett’s strength and defensive ability is often overlooked as people focus on their attacking skill, Jordie Barrett has added extra physicality to the 12 position since replacing David Havili, while Rieko Ioane’s strength is often forgotten as people talk about his pace. Then finally on the wings, you have Caleb Clarke, whose strength is clear to all, and Mark Telea, who more that holds his own as well.

So when you look at this team, it is very clear that you don’t want to take them on physically, as there are very few teams who will be able to match them in this department. Instead, they key is to working the shapes and the space, utilising clever tip-ons and running lines to keep the defence on their toes, and most importantly, avoiding your pack getting white line fever and getting it out to the backs once the space is there.

It’s noticeable that with the extra space provided by Beauden Barrett’s yellow card, England put more focus on attacking the space once they reached the 22, and in doing so, they completed the comeback. The complete difference between the first 70 minutes and the final 10 minutes shows just how important it is to target the right areas when attacking New Zealand.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v Japan

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v Japan

After a week of excuses for their loss to the Pumas, it was back to the pitch for England as they take on Japan. After waiting forever for the Smith/Farrell/Tuilagi midfield that we were promised would make England world-beaters but did very little, the trio were immediately broken up, with Guy Porter getting the start at 13, but it was his opposite number with the first action of note as he charged down Marcus Smith’s kick and looked to break downfield, only for the officials to adjudge his teammate Ryohei Yamanaka was offside, allowing Owen Farrell an easy kick off the tee to open the scoring. England’s pack were gaining early dominance, and when they won a penalty that allowed England to kick into the 22, the ball came out to the backs and Marcus Smith put Freddie Steward over for the opening score the opening try after 12 minutes. It wasn’t long until another England scrum penalty allowed them easy entry into the Japanese 2, but as England tried to play quick attacking rugby for that rare occasion under Eddie Jones, the accuracy was lacking. As the game entered the second quarter, a break by Steward on the kick counter saw Jack van Poortvliet release Joe Cokanasiga, who was stopped just short but managed to offload to Marcus Smith to score in the corner. They found themselves under pressure on the half hour mark though, as a contested lineout was recovered by Japan, which allowed them to open their account for the day with a penalty from fly half Takuya Yamasawa. And they were soon back on the attack, Michael Leith breaking out of his 22 and feeding Dylan Riley; the centre found himself isolated so kicked on and surprisingly beat Jonny May to the ball in the 22, and while the England wing successfully stopped him short of the line, he was then sent to the bin for illegally killing the ball, allowing Yamasawa another easy kick to narrow the gap. However the 15 men conceded just on the stroke of half time. A clever kick to the corner from van Poortvliet was recovered by Japan, and as the ball was played infield to create a better angle for the kicker to clear, the England chase converged to force a turnover, with the ball then being quickly spread to put Porter over, with Owen Farrell adding the extras for a 24-6 lead at the break.

The second half saw Yamasawa replaced by Seung-Sin Lee, whose early penalty attempt from long range was pushed wide as England returned to a full complement. Meanwhile, England chose to put their next penalty into the corner, and after the spread right to left failed to result in a try, the ball started coming back through the forwards and Ellis Genge crashed over for the try. Momentum was with England, and after a great counterruck from Maro Itoje created a turnover, Farrell put boot to ball and Porter won the chase for his second try. As the hour approached and both teams began using their replacements, Japan managed to steal a try as the ball came out unexpected from a ruck deep in English territory, while their next attack of note saw Farrell win the race to Dylan Riley’s grubber. And as England went to the other end of the pitch, a driving maul was brought down illegally for a penalty try, with Siosaia Fifita sent to the bin.  And the hosts brought up the half century with 6 minutes remaining after Freddie Steward’s kick bounced kindly for Henry Slade to kick on (while leaving Kotaru Matsushima stranded) for Marcus Smith to cross for his second of the day, while another break from Slade just moments later ended in disappointment as his grubber kick to the corner was just too heavy for Jonny May to catch up with, leaving England 52-13 victors.

Wasted opportunity?

So what did England actually learn from this match? Their defence performed well against a team that likes to spread the ball, managing to keep the key players quiet for most of the match. However their attack was once again limited and unimaginative, with some questionable decisions from Marcus Smith.

Van Poortvliet showed that he should be the starter at 9 going forward, though an opportunity to get Alex Mitchell used to Test rugby was wasted as Ben Youngs was gifted another cap, while Porter’s inclusion also feels somewhat wasted when we know that Jones is focused on Manu Tuilagi joining Smith and Farrell in midfield, especially as Slade’s impressive late cameo on his 50ᵗʰ cap reminded everyone that he is likely the next up at 13 in Tuilagi’s absence.

Meanwhile the pack showed it’s dominance at the set piece, but with Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge the clear starters, would this not have been an opportunity to start Joe Heyes and a less experienced loosehead? Similarly with Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie the clear top 2 for England, was this not an opportunity for those lower in the pecking order to push their case for the third hooking spot?

Finally, while it is great to see Owen Farrell kicking 100% off the tee, is a match like this not the chance to give the kicking duties to Marcus Smith to get him used to kicking at Test level in case Farrell were to be unavailable in a key World Cup match?

This may be a solid victory for the hosts, but has it really been used effectively as Eddie Jones builds for the World Cup?

When push comes to shove…

As talented as Japan are, they are not going to compete for any tournaments any time soon, as they are just not competitive enough in the tight 5.

They may be reliable in the loose, but find themselves unable to cope with a decent pack in the scrum or the mauls, going backwards at a rate of knots or going to the floor, either of which results in a penalty for the opposition, gifting them territory and possession while forcing Japan to defend again rather than use their attacking skills.

In attack, they can mitigate this by getting the ball in and out, but the problem is in defence, where they are immediately under pressure, and their opposition know they have the dominance so will happily keep the ball in there and push on until they get the penalty.

But how will they improve at this area? Does keeping all their talent in Japan hinder them, as they don’t end up playing in the Northern Hemisphere leagues where scrummaging has become and art form? Or do they need more matches than just the World Cup, June Tests and Autumn Nations Series to face off against the best teams in the world and make playing against an elite pack the norm?

Can They Bring it Home?

Can They Bring it Home?

We are just over a week away from the kicking off of the most controversial World Cup. One that proves money is more important than human rights in the eyes of FIFA. One that has caused a drastic shake-up of the football calendar as players are made to face off in dangerous temperatures. And while there will rightly be much talk of matters away from the pitch,there is still a football tournament to watch.

And the build-up to the tournament took it’s next step forward with the naming of Gareth Southgate’s squad. After impressive results in the last 2 tournaments, England have had a year to forget that saw them embarrassed by Hungary on the way to being relegated to Division B in the UEFA Nations League. With a pool containing USA, Iran and Wales, they should be heavy favourites to progress, but how will they do? Can the Three Lions bring it home? Let’s have a look at the squad…

Goalkeepers

No real shocks here, as Aaron Ramsdale and Nick Pope have had solid starts to the season, while Jordan Pickford is the incumbent. Pickford has the international experience and Southgate has frequently shown his loyalty to players, so while I feel that one of the others would be more reliable, expect the Everton keeper to get the gametime and hopefully not cost the team with a calamitous error.

Defenders

England’s fullback stocks took a massive hit as injuries ruled out Reece James and Ben Chilwell, who would likely have both started. Shaw has had an up and down career but has performed well as a wingback in big games for England, while it will be interesting to see if Southgate prefers the reliability of Kieran Trippier to the sublime attacking quality but questionable defending of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Most likely England play at the back with wing-backs, so I would advocate taking the risk. With that formation taken into account, Kyle Walker seems a reliable call to start on the right of the 3 to help cover Alexander-Arnold, but runs the risk of being undercooked as he returns from injury. To the disappointment of most, Southgate’s loyalty will likely see Harry Maguire continue to start, and we must all help that the Maguire who has been an embarrassment of a captain at Manchester United is not the one on the plane. White, Coady, Stones and Dier are all solid picks, but Fikayo Tomori seems very unlucky to miss out on a spot.

Midfielders

So let’s start with the elephant in the room: Kalvin Phillips is not enough of a generational talent to deserve an immediate spot in the squad after being injured all season, but as another old favourite of Southgate’s he gets in on thoroughly underserved bias ahead of players who have been putting in the effort and performances. Let’s just hope that he is left on the bench rather than forming another partnership with Declan Rice or it will be a very boring tournament for England fans. Henderson provides experience and will likely be brought on to help see out games late on or lead a second string team if they get a chance, while Conor Gallagher is rewarded for his form over the past season and a half, and Mason Mount would have been unlucky to miss out despite an iffy start to the season for Chelsea. All that remains then is Jude Bellingham, who is a player whose quality and maturity is well beyond his age—as one of the few world class talents in this squad, he needs to be starting!

Forwards

And so we reach the final third, where the headline is (finally!) the inclusion of James Maddison—that he only has 1 cap to his name is indicative of Southgate’s issues as a manager, having been one of the best attacking players in the league for years. Harry Kane will obviously lead the line as per,while Callum Wilson’s form deserves a call-up. But spare a thought for Ivan Toney, who misses out. Personally I could have understood his inclusion ahead of Marcus Rashford, but understand that Rashford’s pace and ability to cover the wide position gives him an advantage when numbers are limited. It’s no shock to see Sterling in the squad, but with more talented players like Foden, Grealish, Saka and Maddison, his minutes should be limited—so expect Southgate to play him the full 90 in every match.

Gareth Southgate

And finally we reach the gaffer himself, and here lies England’s biggest issue. While Southgate did a fantastic job of bringing pride back to the shirt and the team, his successful tournament runs have been more about the easy routes then England looking great. But what has frequently been the issue is his inability to play an attacking game, frequently leaving his most impressive playmakers on the bench and relying on formations that feature 5 at the back and 2 holding midfielders, while his loyalty to players who have done well for him in the past is destined to come back to hurt him at a big moment soon. To me, this feels like 1 tournament too far, and it is time for England to move on going into 2023.

My starting XI from this squad:

5-2-3 formation

Goalkeeper: Aaron Ramsdale

Centrebacks: Kyle Walker, Ben White, John Stones

Wingbacks: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Luke Shaw

Midfielders: Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham

Wings: Bukayo Saka, James Maddison

Striker: Harry Kane

What are your thoughts on the squad? Who would make your XI?

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v Argentina

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v Argentina

After a busy day of matches yesterday, there was just one Autumn Nations Series match on Sunday: England’s campaign opener against Argentina. With “wet” probably not doing the conditions at Twickenham justice, both teams were going to the boot early on, finally resulting in an English penalty on 5 minutes as Santiago Carreras was pinged for obstructing a chaser by changing his line. This allowed England to kick possession into the Pumas 22 for the first time, put it came to nothing as Marcus Smith’s attempted cross-kick to Freddie Steward instead floated into the grateful hands of— Mateo Carreras. And the wing was soon beating England to another kick, this one a long ball into the English 22 following a turnover from Juan Martín González, and when Alex Coles tackled Tomás Lavanini off the ball, Emiliano Boffelli was more than willing to kick the penalty to open the scoring. Owen Farrell soon evened the scores after the Pumas defence were wrongly called offside as Ben Youngs struggles to control the ball out of a ruck. However a dropped restart from Coles and and an English offside off the scrum allowed Boffelli to immediately put the Pumas back ahead. Argentina were causing England issues in the scrum, but Andrew Brace decided otherwise and gave England a penalty, but the Pumas defence dealt well with the resulting 5m lineout driving maul. However England’s next 5m scrum after Santi Carreras was forced to cover a kick into his own in-goal—was much more successful as they sent Joe Cokanasiga on the crash ball for the opening try. Boffelli cut the lead with a penalty just after the half hour mark following a wonderful jackal from Julián Montoya, but a late hit from the Pumas captain just minutes later allowed Farrell to kick a penalty of his own. Another England error from the restart gifted Boffelli another simple 3 points, but there was just time for Farrell to kick another of his own after the ball squirted out awkwardly from a scrum, leaving Gonzalo Bertranou under pressure, and the teams went in at the break with the score 16-12.

After another tight start to the second half, a scrum penalty allowed the Pumas to kick up to the English 22, and while England expected the catch and drive, the ball was spread immediately to the backs, and the looping Santiago Carreras put Boffelli over in the corner for the lead. A timely tackle from Mateo Carreras was all that saved the Pumas just moments later as Cokanasiga broke and fed Marcus Smith, and as England looked to create the next attack, Owen Farrell’s pass went behind Billy Vunipola and Santiago carreras was the first to react, picking it up and just holding off the chase of Freddie Steward as he went over for Argentina’s second try in just a matter of minutes. England introduced Jack van Poortvliet following this, and with almost his first touch of the ball, the replacement halfback sniped through a gap at the side of a ruck to go over for a try. After Brace decided that that a high tackle from Jack Nowell on Santiago Carreras was worthy of an England scrum, a strong drive from the home pack won them a penalty that they kicked into the 22, and when Ivan Nemer stupidly played the 9, Farrell kicked England back into a 2-point lead on the hour. Boffelli and Farrell traded penalties over the next handful of minutes, and another Boffelli penalty took the score to 29-30 with 10 minutes remaining. A break from Alex Coles put England on the front foot, but as the phases went on in the 22, he then undid his good work by getting caught running a blocking line, allowing the Pumas to clear their lines and hold on for a first victory over England since 2009.

Prop stars

England have added an extra dimension to their game, and it’s about damn time! Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler have always been great carriers of the ball, but they have been underused as carriers in recent years.

However as of this season, that pair are now playing and training together every week at Bristol, where Pat Lam has utilised not just their carrying, but also their reliable handling skills, having them frequently attack the line together and look to tip the ball on to the other as the defender commits. Now Eddie Jones has also added this to the England playbook.

It’s something so simple, but it makes a great impact, as 2 such big carriers will force so many defenders to commit, and if they breach the defensive line, they have the strength to keep their feet long enough for support to get there, and the handling skills to offload if it is on so that the team can take full advantage of the half-break. And in the close matches, these extra carrying options could prove vital.

Learning and growing

Last time that Argentina played in slippery conditions, they got their tactics wrong, trying to play too much rugby in conditions that didn’t support that style. Today, however, they prioritised the territorial game, relying on the big boots of players like Santiago Carreras to push England deep and then the defence to deal with an England attack that would be blunted by the conditions, allowing them to get after the breakdown and win a number of penalties, which Boffelli—whose reliability with the boot has increased exponentially as he has become the regular kicker—would happily kick all day long. And as the conditions improved slightly, they knew when to take the risks, with a lovely move off a lineout to set up Boffelli the highlight of the game, while Carreras’ handling skills to pick up a greasy ball on the run for his try were incredible.

Are they the finished article? Not yet, as they still give away some stupid penalties, while I still feel that Carreras is held back at fly half and benefits from being able to attack the space from 15, while their scrum needs to become more reliable. But they now have wins over Australia, New Zealand and now England in 2022, and that kind of belief for a team that was until recently in an absolute shambles is a great achievement and will encourage them to just continue growing over the next year with a view to repeating this result in the pool stages of the World Cup.

rugby autumn nations series logo

They brought it home

They brought it home

I’ll keep this one brief, because first of all, I wouldn’t consider myself even close to an expert on the subject, and second, because even 24 hours on, I’m still struggling to find the right words.

In 1996, 30 years on from England’s World Cup triumph and with the European Championships coming up in England, David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, and The Lightning Seeds released the song “Three Lions” with the hope that 30 years of hurt would end with Terry Venables’ England would go the distance and in their first major trophy since 1966. England eventually fell to Germany in the semifinals on penalties.

But last night, Sunday 31ˢᵗ August 2022, I watched on with barely-controlled emotion as, after 56 years of hurt, England won a major tournament. But it wasn’t Harry Kane and his gang of millionaires. Instead it was Leah Williamson’s Lionesses as Chloe Kelly’s 110ᵗʰ minute goal secured a 2-1 victory over Germany (of all teams!) after extra time in the final of the UEFA Women’s Championship!

The Lionesses have made the country proud. But much more than that, they have helped take women’s football to a new level, with packed stadiums throughout the competition ending with a crowd of 87,192 fans watching at Wembley (a European Championships record, regardless of gender) and a a peak BBC One television audience of 17.4 million making it the most-watched women’s football game on UK television.

At a time like this, you must spare a moment for those who came before. The Steph Houghtons, the Alex Scotts, the Kelly Smiths… those who played and represented their country at a time when there was less support and visibility. They set women’s football on the path and were the heroes the current generation needed to encourage them to take up the sport and then make a career out of it. Now the vital thing is that this is seen not as the destination, but simply the next step on the road to making women’s football equal to the men’s game.

We are clearly making strides. Women’s football is getting more coverage and it sounds as if FIFA 23 will even be giving the women’s game a lot more focus that previous iterations, which only recently began to feature a handful of national teams. But the key is to keep the momentum, with fans now going to WSL games—let’s be honest, they’re bound to be much less expensive than Premier League games—while it is also important that sponsors and broadcasters continue to give more and more focus to the game. One shot fired at the England squad was how white it has become, as the increasing professionalism has seen the clubs move their training bases to more affluent areas, which leaves girls from poorer areas unable to afford travel to training, and so it is vital that money continues to come into the game so that solutions can be found to stop this being an issue.

20 years from now when I’m an old man and talk about this Championship, of how Beth Mead came back from Olympics snub to become Player of the Tournament and win the Golden Boot, I hope that I will not be looking at one shining moment in English football, but instead remembering how this was just the next step in the growth of women’s football. After all, it’s Her Game Too.

Australia v England: Team of the Series

Australia v England: Team of the Series

We are one week on from the end of England’s summer tour to Australia. 2 enemies facing each other down under in a 3-Test series that saw old favourites return, new stars make their debuts and a shed-load of Wallaby injuries on the way to a 2-1 series victory for England.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship,it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV.

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.



My combined XV from England’s 3-Test series in Australia is:

1) Ellis Genge: The Baby Rhino has developed into a great Test player. He’s solid in the scrum and improving year on year, and has mellowed to a degree that you no longer worry about him being wound up by the opposition. But more than anything, he reminded us just how dangerous he is with ball in hand with some bulldozing carries, making some of the best players on the pitch get sent flying backwards.

2) Jamie George: David Porecki did a solid job at hooker for the Wallabies on his first caps, which by Aussie hooker standards is good at this point. However the space goes to Jamie George, who had another solid series inthe #2 jersey, keeping the set piece solid.

3) Will Stuart: Shout out to James Slipper for covering the other side of the scrum for the first 2 weeks, while both Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou were impacted by injury. Will Stuart may not have done anything to stand out, but did a solid job in the #3 jersey with Kyle Sinckler unavailable.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Ollie Chessum: Injuries and suspensions led to very little consistency in the Wallabies’ second row, while Jonny Hill’s tour should have been over 15 minutes into the first Test. Maro Itoje had his “Saracens Maro” moments of going above and beyond in his antics with his yelling at the lineout, but put in 3 solid performances around the park, while Chessum looked comfortable at Test level and deserves to get more minutes in the Autumn.

6) Courtney Lawes: I will continue to argue that he should be in the second row rather than at flanker, but Lawes continues to put in super-reliable performances week in, week out. Add to that the extra responsibility of the captaincy and this was another solid tour for the Northampton star.

7) Michael Hooper: Just like Lawes, you can always rely on the Aussie skipper to give at least an 8/10 performance every week. Continued to show that he is one of the best 7s in the world with incredible turnovers at crucial times, despite England focusing on him at the breakdown.

8) Billy Vunipola: Rob Valentini continues to grow as a Test-level number 8, but he was overshadowed here by Vunipola. Whether you feel that he should be there or not, he did a great job of carrying hard to help put England on the front foot.

9) Jack van Poortvliet: The Leicester halfback made his Test debut on this tour and should have already secured his spot in the 23, if not the starting XV. Took to Test rugby like a duck to water, controlling the game with variety and getting his box kicks right on the money.

10) Noah Lolesio: Marcus Smith had some fantastic moments and Lolesio had some struggles, but I feel that the Wallabies 10 was the more consistent over the 3 Tests, while his reliability off the tee was a axtra mark in is favour as Smith left the goal kicking to Owen Farrell.

11) Marika Koroibete: Tommy Freeman sparked plenty of excitement in the final Test, but I have gone for the more consistent Koroibete. Though I’m not sure he was the Player of the Series, his strong carrying and willingness to come in off his wing helped set up a platform for the Australian attack.

12) Samu Kerevi: Kerevi makes this team so much better just by his inclusion. Has followed the Ma’a Nonu progression route of going from a crash ball 12 to developing his passing and kicking game to become an all-round playmaker. Used all facets of the game to great effect through the series.

13) Hunter Paisami: Guy Porter certainly didn’t look out of his depth but was sometimes lacking in defence. Paisami is a great look at his potential career trajectory, as the young Queensland Red has become a solid, reliable defender and built on that as he has gained experience at Test level.

14) Tom Wright: Jack Nowell is unlucky to miss out after a solid series, but Wright gets the nod here for how well he adapted to repeated injury-enforced change-ups to the back line, which saw him also spend time at fullback. Found some issues dealing with Tommy Freeman in the decider, but caused issues of his own for the English when he attacked.

15) Freddie Steward: Wins this spot by default as almost everyone who took up the position for Australia soon found themselves injured, but Steward also wins this spot on merit. Dominated the air in a way that very few manage to do and looks much more experienced than his handful of caps would suggest.