The Kids Are Alright…

The Kids Are Alright…

If you are a regular reader of my articles about English rugby, then you will know that I am firmly of the stance that Eddie Jones should have left his role as head coach of the England national team years ago, and that England should have done as France have this World Cup cycle – immediately turned towards youth and the players who will be pushing for a spot at the RWC2023, so that they have 4 years of international experience – both individually and as a team – by the time the World Cup comes around.

With that in mind, I decided to take a look at picking an alternative England XV made entirely of players who are aged 25 or under by the end of this season, as this highlights the players who would be coming around to their prime around 2023 – 2028 window and potentially cover both of those World Cups. Having made this decision, I also then chose to leave out anyone in this category who has been a regular in the England 23s in recent seasons, to show the incredible depth available out there – even more so when you look at some of the players (like Sam Simmonds) who just missed out on this squad due to their age, but would arguably still have the potential to play a key role in an ideal England squad.

rugby england crest shirt red

1) Alex Seville: I will admit that during the last year, the way competitions have been ran despite the impact of COVID has significantly reduced the amount of club rugby that I have been watching, leading to limited options in some positions. But one young lad who has been standing out has been Gloucester’s Alex Seville. The loosehead has been in and around the Gloucester senior team for a few seasons now and has been reaping the benefits this season, showing his quality in the scrum and carrying with strength.

2) Will Capon: Harry Thacker’s extended time out has allowed Will Capon a chance to show what he can do for Bristol and has highlighted another great talent at the hooker position. Capable of not just keeping up with Bristol’s expansive attacking, but also being able to seamlessly fit into it, Capon also has the strength to look after himself in contact and jump above some more experienced options to claim the number 2 jersey in my XV.

3) Marcus Street: Will Stuart is in the age bracket to get picked here, but is excluded as a regular in the England 23, so Marcus Street gets the nod here. Exeter have an abundance of quality at tighthead prop with Tomas Francis and Harry Williams, so Street will be learning from some of the best, and will surely be hoping to get more regular appearances in the near future.

4) Nick Isiekwe: One of the players who chose to be loaned to another Premiership club whilst Saracens were relegated to the Championship, the regular top flight rugby will surely be helping Isiekwe, even if his playing time is split between the second row and back row. The youngster does have a few caps to his name but has not been picked for since 2018 and will surely be hoping that his play with Northampton gets him back in contention in the near future.

5) Joel Kpoku: From the man who (temporarily) left Sarries to a man who should have left, Joel Kpoku found his opportunities limited at Saracens with their raft of international locks, and would have surely benefited from either a permanent or a loan move away when the club were relegated in order to give themselves the chance of regular Premiership rugby at a key point in their development. Kpoku is just the latest in the train of talented young locks coming through the Saracens ranks, following Itoje and Isiekwe, and it’s surely just a matter of time until he follows them into the senior England XV.

6) Zach Mercer: And so we reach the back row, and this is where things get crazy, as England have a plethora of young talent to cover the back row. Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Ben Earl and Jack Willis were all ruled out due to their regularity in the England 23, while Sam Simmonds aged out, and yet I still struggled to narrow it down to a trio. Ted Hill should consider himself very unlucky to miss out here as I moved Zach Mercer from his regular 8 shirt to number 6 – for reasons you will see soon enough. It is an absolute travesty that Mercer has not been given a fair shot in the England squad as he has been Bath’s best number 8 for years, but has unfortunately decided that enough is enough and agreed a move to France for next season. Expect him to follow in the footsteps of Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon by winning European Rugby Player of the Year in the coming seasons.

7) Lewis Ludlam: Will Evans and Ben Curry are unfortunate to be left out here, but Lewis Ludlam has proved himself previously in the England jersey – making the World Cup squad in 2019 – and has shown a carrying ability to go with his quality at the breakdown.

8) Alex Dombrandt: Keep an eye on Rusiate Tuima, who is currently working his way through the depth chart at Exeter, but here and now, it’s Alex Dombrandt of harlequins who gets the nod here. He carries with such incredible power -hence moving Mercer to 6 to take advantage of Dombrandt off the back of a scrum, while he also has the pace to exploit a gap in the defensive line and the awareness and handling skills to keep an attack going after making the initial break. On top of this, he is also another serious threat at the breakdown for the opposition to deal with.

9) Harry Randall: I’m still not over the fact that Gloucester had Harry Randall on their books but either couldn’t keep hold of him or decided he wasn’t worth holding onto. Randall is a player I have enjoyed since his days at Hartpury College. By no means the most physical player on the pitch, he makes up for that with his wits and talent, quickly becoming a regular in the Bristol XV.

10) Joe Simmonds: Allow me a moment of bias by mentioning George Barton, who is finally seizing on his opportunity at Gloucester and showing his quality to hopefully secure the job as Adam Hastings’ back-up next season. He’s probably a bolter for RWC2023 or more likely a player to come into the squad soon after the tournament ready for 2028, but there are plenty of other options who should have replaced George Ford in the 23 years ago and arguably had the chance to prove themselves at international level. While Marcus Smith certainly deserves his shot, I believe that Joe Simmonds is the best option as he has been developed so well at Exeter, slowly taking over from Gareth Steenson as the leader of the back line.

11) Ollie Thorley: Thorley has been on the fringes of the England squad for a while now but not been able to regularly win a place in the 23. It’s a pity, as he has a great blend of pace and power that will cause defences no end of issues as they try to figure out if he will try to run around them or through them.

12) Piers O’Conor: Though he’s not been able to hammer down a weekly spot in the England 23, Ollie Lawrence has been enough of a regular that I chose to make my job harder by leaving him out. Luckily, Bristol’s O’Conor fell just within the age range so gets the nod here. A utility back who has played for England XV in an uncapped match, O’Conor has a great range of skills that would make him indispensable in any team.

13) Paolo Odogwu: You’ve got to feel for Odogwu, who has been a revolution for Wasps sine his move in from the wing. Such was his form, he was called into the England training squad for the Six Nations and kept with the team each week, only to find himself leapfrogged by Joe Marchant by the end of the tournament without ever making the 23. He has an incredible talent, with pace to burn and strong legs to keep driving in contact. The danger for England right now is that while he remains uncapped, he could choose to switch allegiance to Italy, who would certainly benefit from having him on board.

14) Joe Cokanasiga: A major knee injury has kept the Bath winger quiet over the last year, while he has also been dealing with issues relating to his father’s visa. However, if he can get back on track next year, it won’t take him much to remind us of the quality that saw him called up to the England squad with good pace and great physicality and handling to go with it, giving England something different on the wing.

15) Josh Hodge: Max Malins fell out of the running by becoming a regular for England during the Six Nations, and while an on-form George Furbank has a big draw and both Freddie Steward and Tom de Glanville have impressed of late, I have instead gone for Josh Hodge. Another Exeter player who may not be getting as many minutes as they would at some other teams, Hodge is learning off a top-quality 15in Stuart Hogg and has many of the same attributes, with quality handling skills and the ability to beat players with just his pace and footwork, while also having a monster kick to pin the opposition back.

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Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Super Saturday’s second match saw England and Ireland completing their 2021 Six Nations campaigns in Dublin. England had been the victors in their recent encounters and soon took a 0-3 lead through the boot of Owen Farrell, though Jonathan Sexton soon cancelled this out. The match was a tight contest but Ireland found the breakthrough going into the second quarter with a lineout move, overthrowing to Jack Conan who peeled off the back of the line and – under pressure from Tm Curry – played the ball back into the gap between him and the line and straight into the hands of Keith Earls, who had timed his run to perfection an rounded Jonny May to go over in the corner. Sexton added the conversion before trading penalties with Farrell, and it looked like the game would see itself out to half time, until Hugo Keenan beat Elliot Daly in the air competing for a Sexton bomb into the 22. This put the Irish on the front foot and after a couple of phases, they managed to bring the ball up to the English 5m line, before Jack Conan picked from the base of the ruck and managed to power and stretch his way to the line for a second try, which Sexton converted for a 20-6 lead at the break.

Ireland looked like they had scored another try 9 minutes into the second half when Earls dotted down a Sexton cross-kick, however the try was chalked off for a knock on from Cian Healy in the build-up and the men in green were forced to settle for a penalty to extend their lead, while Sexton added another penalty on the hour. Things were looking bad for England, who were without a recognised fly half having replaced George Ford and then lost Owen Farrell to a head injury just minutes later – Max Malins having also pulled out the night before – but they were given a lifeline as Bundee Aki was shown a red card for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola. England kicked the resulting penalty to touch and after pulling in the Irish pack to defend the driving maul, Jamie George peeled off to the blind side and fed Ben Youngs to cross in the corner. The English discipline was – unsurprisingly for this tournament – lacking and Sexton added 2 more penalties to secure the game. There was still time for one final hurrah from England, and after Conor Murray was sent to the bin, stand-in fly half Dan Robson threw a wide pass to put Jonny May over with just minutes left, Daly converting for a final score of 32-18, that condemned England to a 5ᵗʰ-place finish.

James Ryan may be one of the darlings of Irish rugby, but I would argue that Saturday’s pairing of Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne is Ireland’s strongest second row.

While both of the pair have the physicality of locks, they play like extra back rows in the way they carry in the loose and act around the contact area, while they both have the energy to play the full 80 minutes at 100%. Even with CJ Stander having just played his last game in an Ireland shirt, the team has so many great options in the back row – Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Will Connors to name just a few – that having Beirne and Henderson in the second row allows the team more chance to tailor the back row to fit their opposition, such as playing carriers at 6 and 8 or a more defensive option of Connors and van der Flier on the flanks.

Do I expect the Irish to stick to this pairing once Ryan returns from injury? Not likely, though Beirne may return to 6 to keep the pair in the starting XV, but I feel that this is the second row partnership that will lead to the best Irish performances.

England

After last week’s great performance against France, was it any surprise to see England revert to type against Ireland?

Less that 2 years ago, England were playing in a World Cup final, but if you look deeper, the team was already stagnating under Eddie Jones. The win over New Zealand was the only performance of note in that tournament, with England benefitting from facing France and Argentina – both of whom were woefully lacking form – in the pools, and playing a quarterfinal against an Australian team that was also at a low point.

Following the tournament, England should have done as France had, change coaches and bring in the youth to give them a full 4 years playing together to build ready for RWC2023. Instead, Jones has stayed in place and the team has fallen apart. Too many players are picked on the strength of their name and performances years ago, while the form players who should be the stars of this team are not even getting picked for the squad. This has proved especially disastrous this year with the decision to keep picking Saracens players who had been relegated the the Championship so not played rugby for months, and it has left the team with players lacking match fitness in key positions. Meanwhile, the team has also unquestioningly gone for the new Eddie Jones approach of kicking the ball away at every opportunity and trusting a defence that isn’t actually as good as the think they are, while giving away dozens of ridiculous and completely avoidable penalties that kill off any chance of competing.

This 5ᵗʰ-place finish should be the last straw. Now is the time to move on from Jones before the team stagnates any further. 2 years is still enough time to bed in players like the Simmonds brothers and build this team up ready for the next World Cup.

Come on RFU, make the right decision!

Lions Watch

As well as the lock pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain HendersonKeith Earls put in a timely performance to remind Warren Gatland of his reliability. Jonathan Sexton has also done a great job of guiding the Irish attack as it has grown more expansive during the tournament.

Meanwhile, another anonymous display that included an early removal will surely put the nail in the coffin of George Ford‘s Lions chances, while Mako Vunipola was pulled off at half time after struggling in the scrum.

Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

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

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

Wales

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

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

England

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

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

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

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

Lions Watch

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

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

Six Nations 2021: England v Italy

Six Nations 2021: England v Italy

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

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

England

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

Lions Watch

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

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

Six Nations 2021: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2021: 6 to Watch

It feels like only yesterday that the 2020 Six Nations came to an end, but we are already just a week away from the start of the 2021 edition of the Six Nations. In theory, this should have been a big tournament, with these being the last internationals before the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa, but the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is currently leaving that in jeopardy.

I’ve made clear my thoughts on whether the Six Nations should be going ahead in the current circumstances, but money talks, so to help myself prepare for the tournament and get in the spirit, I am back with my latest look a one player from each nation to watch out for during the competition.


England

He may already have just over 20 caps to his name, but with Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler out, this s te time for Ellis Genge to shine. Nicknamed “Baby Rhino” for his devastating ball carrying, Genge is now also developing into a solid scrummager, and at 25 he arguably still has the potential of playing the best part of a decade at the top level.

France

The absence of Romain Ntamack is a blow to Les Bleus, but also a great opportunity for Matthieu Jalibert to show what he can do. Capped before Ntamack, injury brought an early end to his first Six Nations, but this will be a great chance to build on his Autumn Nations Cup performances and try to establish a competition for the 10 shirt with Ntamack once he is available. A real attacking talent, expect to see him creating havoc with the quality of backs around him.

Ireland

Regular readers probably won’t be surprised to see me selecting James Lowe here, as I have been a big fan of him since before his move to Leinster. Having become eligible to play for Ireland through residency, I have been shocked at how little Andy Farrell has used him so far, but expect him to be utilised more as Ireland look to become more dangerous. Lowe provides something different to elusive runners like Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and Hugo Keenan, in that he will be able to take contact and continue to drive himself forwards. If you go high on him, don’t be shocked to end up on the ground, watching him run away for a try.

Italy

The second fly half to appear on this list, 20-year-old Paolo Garbisi is one of the new young talents being trusted to play a key part in the rebuilding Italian squad. Garbisi looked assured during the Autumn Nations Cup and will look to build on those performances as he solidifies his place in the Azzurri XV. He will need his team to give him front-foot ball (which won’t be helped by Jake Polledri’s injury), but with a big boot and the confidence that comes with youth, he could be the one to lead this new generation of Italian rugby to improved performances and results.

Scotland

It’s probably no big surprise to see Duhan van der Merwe take this spot. Another wing to have recently qualified for his adopted nation through residency, van der Merwe brings a much more physical option to the Scottish attack out wide while still having the pace to exploit any gap. Early appearances have suggested that he will be given quite a bit of freedom to go hunting for the ball by Gregor Townsend, which could be just what the Scots need if they want to carryon last 2020’s success.

Wales

I was so close to picking Josh Macleod, but I’m not sure how much game time he will get, so instead I went for someone who has already been earning a spot in the squad: Louis Rees-Zammit. The Gloucester wing may still be young and have some learning to do, but he has one of the most dangerous weapons in international rugby – supreme pace. The only problem so far has been how the Welsh attack has wasted him and failed to give him the space to exploit, but if they can sort that out this year, he will be deadly!


During the Six Nations, I will be running a predictions pool on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was.

You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code tiernose

Guinness Six Nations

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

With Saturday having seen 3ʳᵈ-8ᵗʰ decided, Sunday saw England hosting France at Twickenham to decide the overall winner of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. A player usage agreement with the Top 14 meant that France were using fringe players against what Eddie Jones would probably consider close to his ideal XV, and it was the home team who opened the scoring in front of 2000 fans with a penalty from Owen Farrell. Les Bleus weren’t just there to make up the numbers, though, and when Matthieu Jalibert broke through the England defence on the edge of their 22, he quickly spread it wide to put Brice Dulin over for the opening try, which Jalibert converted. Elliot Daly and Jalibert traded penalties, but England were gifted an opportunity at the end of the half as Dulin failed to recognise that he had been passed the ball by a player outside his 22, kicking the ball out on the full to give England a lineout deep in the French 22. England went through 12 phases camped on the French line – during which George Ford butchered an overlap to go for the line himself – before Ellis Genge knocked on as he tried to fight his was across from a pick-and-go. The French won the free kick at the resulting scrum and were able to put the ball into touch to end the half with a 6-13 lead.

The second half stared as the first ended, with Anthony Watson knocking on Owen Farrell’s cross kick in the air, but Farrell soon kicked a penalty to narrow the gap, before missing a couple of kicks in a row. Jalibert left the pitch early with an injury and was replaced by fellow youngster Louis Carbonel, and though he struggled to get the offence running as well with Jonathan Danty also off, his kicking from the tee was on point as he kicked to penalties to one more from Farrell to give Les Bleus a 7-point lead with just minutes left. It looked like the French would hold out for the unlikeliest of victories, but referee Andrew Brace and TMO Ben Whitehouse both failed to spot 2 clear knock-ons from the English in their last gasp attack, before Brace awarded England a penalty. George Ford kicked to the corner and the England pack managed to drive the ball infield for Luke Cowan-Dickie to go over with the clock in the red, Farrell kicking the conversion in the clutch to leave the scores level at 19-19 at full time.

And so the game entered sudden death extra time, and for a moment it looked as if it would be over almost immediately as England were awarded a penalty, but Owen Farrell’s kick hit the right post and flew across the face of the posts without going between them. France worked their way downfield but were unable to set up the drop goal, ending the first period still at 19-19. England started getting the decisions in the second period, though, which allowed them to control the territory. France were clearly tiring quicker and when Alivereti Raka was isolated following a clever kick to the corner, England were awarded another penalty and Farrell bisected the posts to complete the most undeserving of victories and be crowned the first ever Autumn Nations Cup Champions.

Kick to nowhere

You know what you’re getting with England these days: a solid defence, and the ball being kicked within a couple of phases of winning possession. And yet despite having a back line full of talented kickers of the ball – Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly – the kicking game was an absolute shambles in this game.

In Anthony Watson and Jonny May, England have 2 premier talents, with the pace and aerial ability to cause problems for their opponents, and yet they were barely given a chance to compete, while Brice Dulin and Matthieu Jalibert had a relatively easy job of dealing with most of their kicks.

George Ford is supposedly one of the premier attacking 10s in World Rugby – as the commentary repeatedly told us – and yet he did nothing of note in attack other than butcher a try just before half time, while his kicking was aimless, other than one quality kick to the corner to set up the game-tying try. Meanwhile, reliable kicker Owen Farrell may as well have flipped a coin before each kick to decide if it was going ever or not – he never seemed to get fully comfortable on the day, which almost proved costly.

If England are going to rely on defence and the kicking game rather than trying to play rugby, they need to be perfect in everything they do. This is a game that they should have lost, and they need to seriously improve if they want to even stand a chance against the French in the Six Nations.

La fiabilité

For so long, the cliché has been that you never know which French team will turn up from week to week. Well that can be well and truly forgotten right now. Under Fabien Galthié, the French team has been largely consistent in its selection – though don’t be surprised to see a few fringe players fighting for a spot after the last couple of performances – but the consistency has gone even beyond that.

With Shaun Edwards coaching the defence, the French have become so solid and reliable, while their discipline is also far better than it was beforehand. And even this week, with the fringe players on the pitch who have likely had less time in camp, that defensive solidity was clear to all to see.

And yet unlike some teams with strong defences, they also have the attacking skills to match it. Yes, they were a little lacking towards the end of the game, but Louis Carbonel will only improve as he gets more experience both for Toulon and France, and will also benefit from playing with a settled team that has more chemistry.

From the early stages of the 2020 Six Nations, I felt confident that France would be my favourites to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The more I see of them, the more confident I feel of that prediction.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

The final round of the Autumn Nations Cup pool stage kicked off this afternoon with England’s trip to Llanelli to face Wales. With 2 wins from 2, England arrived at Parc y Scarlets the heavy favourites, but it was the home side who took the lead as Dan Biggar blocked at attempted grubber from Henry Slade, the ball was hacked on into the English dead ball area and centre Johnny Williams – who had previously scored for England in a uncapped match against the Barbarians – beat off all opposition to dot the ball down, with Leigh Halfpenny nailing the conversion. England had been the stronger team before the try and remained so, and when Dan Biggar knocked on after being tackled in the air by Sam Underhill – a clear penalty that referee Romain Poite inexplicably deemed legal despite the TMO’s protestation – England went through the phases and eventually drew in the Welsh defence enough to put Henry Slade over for the try out wide, Farrell missing the conversion – his 2ⁿᵈ miss following an early penalty – to allow Wales to keep the lead. Halfpenny missed a penalty that would have extended the lead, and Owen Farrell found his range with the boot to kick 2 penalties and give England a 7-11 lead at the break.

Wales made a number of changes early in the second half, but it didn’t bring any immediate success as they were tackled over their own line following a 5m lineout. England went through the phases off the scrum and with the ball just inches from the line, Mako Vunipola managed to pick from the base and pirouette through contact to score, Farrell adding the 2 points. Wales kept themselves in the fight with 2 penalties from Dan Biggar, but the game was effectively killed off with 13 minutes remaining, as Ben Youngs took advantage of a loose ball on the floor following a deliberate knock on from Wales 40m out, going though a gap and spreading the ball to Anthony Watson, who was stopped 5m short of the line. However Poite, who had completely missed the knock on decided that a gain of 35 metres was not sufficient to call the advantage over and Farrell duly added the 3 points off the tee to take the lead beyond 7 points. As the clock ticked down, Farrell added another 3 points off the tee but missed a final attempt, and England came away with the 13-24 victory to top the pool.

Eat sleep, kick, repeat

England’s defence was once again fantastic. Their set piece largely dominant. Their attack… Boring? Repetitive? Lacking? Unimaginative? There are certainly very few positive words I can think of to describe it.

Let’s not forget that had Romain Poite been doing a better job, 8 of England’s points wouldn’t have counted and some of the scrum penalties against Wales were very dubious – and this is coming from an Englishman! England have a world class winger in Jonny May and plenty of talented attacking players, however Eddie Jones instead chooses to go for Ben Youngs and George Ford to kick all their ball back to Wales. Yes a lot of them were meant to be contestable kicks, but they were poor, and at best those kicks are usually a 50/50 to retain. Meanwhile Wales are left with what appears to be a decent defence because it was hardly ever tested in the game.

Yes, a solid set piece, reliable goal kicker and stingy defence will only get you so far and you need to have an attack of your own – just look at how dangerous France are at the moment with an incredible attack and defence!

Just one look at a weekend of Premiership action will show you that the attacking talent is available to Eddie Jones, there just needs to be a change of mindset from the coaches to take this team to the next level.

Time running out?

It wasn’t just the England attack that was lacking in this game, as the Welsh attack produced… well, nothing! The one time they truly looked dangerous was Williams’ try, which was just chasing down a blocked kick.

The pack were clearly missing the talents of players like Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi and struggled to make any ground to put the team on the front foot, and this meant that the backs were unable to create any space, with Louis Rees-Zammit’s best chance coming when he had 5m of space when getting the ball – however this was against Anthony Watson, who had only just come on and had the pace and angle to cover him – and Josh Adams never even got that!

While the appointment of Wayne Pivac seemed a great move following his success with the Scarlets and the perfect cure to years of Warrenball, it feels like he is struggling to get this team performing at anything close to an acceptable level, and with Scott Robertson looking so impressive with the Crusaders, I can’t help feel that the WRU should reach out to see if he would be interested in stepping up to international rugby and making the move to bring him in before the All Blacks move on from Ian Foster.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Ireland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Ireland

The second weekend of the Autumn Nations Cup kicked off in a wonderful fashion with England hosting Ireland at Twickenham. The English came in off a dominant win over Georgia and their impressive defence continued from the off.

After a tight opening 15 minutes, it was England who broke the deadlock as Owen Farrell made use of a penalty advantage in the Irish 22 and kicked a high ball out to the right wing, where Jonny May managed to rise above Hugo Keenan to win the ball and cross the line under heavy pressure from James Lowe. The Irish thought they had a chance to hit back minutes later with a lineout 5m from the England line, but their lineout issues returned as Ronan Kelleher overthrew his jumper and England won possession back, spreading the ball to Jonny May on the far wing who slipped through the defence before chasing down his own kick downfield for a stunning second try, which Owen Farrell converted. The Irish managed to regain some degree of parity but could not find an answer for the English defence. With just a few minutes left of the half, a risky Irish move off a lineout in their own 22 looked to have backfired spectacularly as Sam Underhill dotted the ball down over the line, but a referral to the TMO showed that he had completed the tackle on Jamison Gibson-Park and played the ball on the floor on the Irish side of the breakdown, meaning Underhill’s wait for a first Test try would continue as his team went into the break 12-0 up.

Ireland’s inability to severely test the England defence continued in the second half, and Owen Farrell punished their indiscipline with 6 points off the tee. However as the half went on, the English discipline began to slip and the Irish began to spend more time in the English 22. A clever kick from Ross Byrne caught the England defence out and Chris Farrell collected, only for Henry Slade to tackle him and roll him over the line to hold the ball up. As the clock ticked down, England’s win became all-but assured, but the Irish managed to earn some consolation as replacement Billy Burns chipped in behind the English line and Jacob Stockdale collected to go under the posts, with Burns adding the extras for a final score of 18-7.

The white wall

Ireland didn’t necessarily play a bad match here – besides the lineout – but they just had no answer for the England defence. While there is certainly reason to question Eddie Jones’ reticence to bring in some of the best attacking talents in the Premiership, the players that he put on the pitch are working so well as a formidable defensive unit.

They keep organised, they come up in your face and tackle you en masse to push you back from the gain line, while also taking their chances to slow down the ball and create turnovers. It hardly looks like they tire, but then as you tire, you see another player come on and do the same to you.

Argentina showed last weekend against the All Blacks how a great defence and doing the basics right can win you the game, well England’s defence puts them in that position and with special talent like Jonny May in the side, there is always that threat when they have the ball. Certainly I feel that there are players in the Premiership who could improve this team, but they are in a strong position already.

Tactical blunder?

It’s not often you can say this with your team down 18-0 at the time that you’re replaced, but Ross Byrne didn’t have a bad game. The Leinster fly half was given the start in the absence of Johnny Sexton, and would have wished for a much easier challenge so soon in his international career. However he played a solid, if unspectacular game, leading what was clearly an attempt to put England under pressure by peppering Elliot Daly with high balls – always a good plan – and kicking for the corners to take advantage of any territory. Unfortunately for him, England were able to deal with much of this and pay it back with interest, and it just didn’t seem like the Irish had and answer, though Chris Farrell had a degree of success attacking at 13. Probably the best moment of the game from Byrne was his last-second switch to a grubber that almost led to a try, but other than this it was a pretty basic gameplan from Ireland that barely troubled the home defence.

Billy Burns entered the fray in the final 8 minutes and, though there was little chance to show what he could do, the Irish attack already looked more dangerous. Burns was always a great attacking 10 at Gloucester and has continued as such with Ulster, being able to vary the attack with a series of passes and kicks. This was perfectly highlighted by the try at the end, recognising that the high pressure from the England defence would leave a gap in behind and putting in an inch-perfect chip for Stockdale to run onto.

And so with this improvement in the attack, a question should be asked of why Andy Farrell did not choose to bring on Burns earlier. It’s by no means a knock at Byrne, but the gameplan he was set up clearly wasn’t working, whereas a more varied attack may have got more success out of Farrell, Keenan and Lowe.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

England’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Georgia is not one that will live long in the memory for many people, but let’s get through this.

Eddie Jones put out a side full of experience but also with a few debutants, and though they quickly found themselves camped on the Georgian line, it took them quarter of an hour to finally break the deadlock as Wasps flanker Jack Willis forced himself over on debut, converted by Owen Farrell. The physical contest continued, but the Lelos struggled to get any territory of note and conceded 2 tries in quick succession as England utilised the driving maul for Jamie George to earn a first half brace, the first of which was converted by Farrell. England finally remembered they had a back line just before half time and Jonathan Joseph came off his wing to create an overlap that allowed Elliot Daly to go over in the corner to secure the bonus point, while Farrell converted for a 26-0 halftime score.

Any hopes of a more exciting second half were quickly doused by deteriorating weather conditions, but Jamie George found reason to celebrate just before the hour mark as another driving maul saw him complete his hat trick, with Farrell adding the 2 points. Georgia kept competing however and earned some possession in the England 22, but the England defence coped with them and worked their way back downfield, allowing replacement Dan Robson to snipe over from close range for his first Test try, which Farrell converted for a final score of 40-0.

Mauled

For a team so revered for their scrummaging ability, the Georgians really have an issue with the maul. The Lelos don’t appear to have any way to stop a Tier 1 team when they get the driving maul set, with Scotland scoring 3 times and setting up another try using the driving maul just a couple of weeks ago, to add to Jamie George’s hat trick today.

Every time a team gets the maul set against Georgia, it either seems to end in a penalty due to the Lelos bringing it down illegally, or else with the referee blowing his whistle for a try. Meanwhile when the Lelos get the chance to put together a driving maul of their own, England found it all to easy to break the pack apart and get through on the ball.

Georgia need to be playing against Tier 1 teams regularly in order to improve these facets of the game. Until they do so, teams will be kicking their penalties to touch in the knowledge that all they need to do is set up the maul and drive the Lelos out of the match.

Wasted opportunity

While it was great to see Ollie Lawrence and Jack Willis making well-deserved debuts, this was still a wasted opportunity from Eddie Jones to test the depth of his squad and give some of his younger players experience. What does anyone learn from a halfback pairing of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell in this game, or regulars Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and Jonny May. Similarly, Jonathan Joseph is as much an international wing as Elliot Daly is an international fullback – not at all.

Instead, the form players form the Premiership could have been rewarded, with a back row of Ben Earl, Jack Willis and European Player of the Year Sam Simmonds, who didn’t even make the wider squad. Ollie Thorley could have been given his debut on one wing, with players like George Furbank, Ruaridh McConnochie, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Joe Cokanasiga looked at for the other spots in the back 3 – yet only Furbank and Thorley made the wider squad and neither made the 23! Ben Spencer and Robson should be fighting for the 9 shirt, but Spencer was forced to watch from home while Robson made a 20 minute cameo. And then we come to fly half, where Owen Farrell plays the full 80 minutes while Jacob Umaga fails to make the 23 and Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds – who just led Exeter to the league and European double – don’t even make the wider squad.

Hopefully a day doesn’t come when England regret not blooding more talent in matches like this.

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Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

The long-delayed Super Saturday to end the 2020 Six Nations continued at the Stadio Olimpico as Italy hosted England. The Azzurri’s 6ᵗʰ place finish was already confirmed, while the visitors knew that they needed to win – and win big – to potentially win the tournament.

Things couldn’t have started much better for England, with Owen Farrell breaking through in midfield and feeding Ben Youngs to pen the scoring on his 100ᵗʰ cap, Farrell adding the conversion and a further 3 points from a penalty soon after. The men in white struggled to build on this though, and were made to pay when a handling error allowed Jake Polledri to go over in the corner. England survived a 10-minute period without Jonny Hill following a high tackle, but after Polledri was sent to the bin for coming in at the side of a maul, England failed to capitalise on the extra an at the catch and drive – getting turned over short of the line – and almost conceded themselves right before halftime as they failed to deal with a kick down the right wing, with both George Furbank and Federico Mori missing the ball and Jonny May cleaning up to end the half 5-10.

With Polledri still in the bin for the opening minutes of the second half, the Italian defence found themselves stretched and allowed Ben Youngs to snipe off the side of a ruck to go over for his second try of the game. With Italy back to a full complement, they looked like they had the desire but not the personnel, an England drove over from a lineout, Jamie George dotting down for the try, and while England never really shone, Tom Curry and Henry Slade both scored in the corner to secure the bonus point with a 5-34 victory. This victory put England top of the table, and with France beating Ireland later in the evening, they were crowned Six Nations Champions.

Who wants it?

England may have been the one going for the Six Nations title, but there was only 1 team that looked like they had the desire to win this game: Italy. The Azzurri were fired up for this match and taking it as a personal affront any time they were beaten as a pack, while celebrating vociferously with every turnover and penalty they won.

Were England just struggling as this was their first match together? Or were they just taking Italy for granted? Either way, I need to see more desire from England.

In too deep

While Italy may have had the desire, they came away with only 5 points from this game, and the only times they really looked like scoring were the try – which came off an England error – and a chance just before halftime as Mori chased a kick downfield.

To me, one of the big reasons that they created so little was how deep their back line was playing. When the ball was going through the forwards off 9, they were holding parity against the England defence and making metres, but as soon as the ball went to the backs, they were dropping almost 10 metres with each pass, but not doing anything to trouble the England defence. This would lead to them being tackled well behind the gain line and struggling to keep possession as most of their men were in front of the ball.

If Italy want to start having some success, they need to start by getting fly half Paolo Garbisi playing closer to the line. Only by doing this will the Azzurri be able to start bringing in midfield runners to cause defences trouble and create space on the outside.

In the footsteps of a legend

For so long, Italy have rallied around their star man and captain Sergio Parisse. While he may now be gone, another superstar has emerged from his shadow in the shape of Gloucester’s Jake Polledri.

Capable of playing across the back row, he has recently been used at 8 by the Azzurri, which I think suits him best, as he has the power game to create a platform coming off the base of the scrum, while also the pace to exploit any space he is given – both of which he showed in scoring his try in this game. On top of that, he is also a threat at the breakdown, capable of playing at 7.

And at 24 years old and playing for Gloucester, it means that he is playing against many of the best players in the world on a weekly basis. I may have some bias having watched him regularly these past few years, but I feel comfortable picking him amongst the top 5 number 8s in the world currently playing, and that is just the kind of player Italy needs right now.

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