Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

With coronavirus fears causing Ireland’s game against Italy to be postponed, Round 4 of the Six Nations eventually kicked off at Twickenham with England’s match against Wales. Anthony Watson gave England an early lead, which was added to by Elliot Daly and the boot of Owen Farrell, the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar keeping Wales just in it for a 20-9 halftime score. Wales hit back immediately after the break with a try from Justin Tipuric, but a try for Manu Tuilagi helped England pull away, before the centre’s late red card and a yellow for Ellis Genge gave Wales a 2-man advantage, which allowed them to have the final say through tries for Dan Biggar and Tipuric again to come away with a losing bonus point, the 33-30 final score earning England the Triple Crown.

 

England

England may go down as the victors, but they came so close to shooting themselves in the foot with their poor discipline. A game between these two nations is always going to be a tetchy affair, but there were moments that England took things too far. Captain Owen Farrell saw him penalised on his own line for an unnecessary shove that sparked a brawl and was potentially lucky to not be penalised again shortly later for shoving over Dan Biggar while chasing a kick, while Joe Marler may find himself in hot water for trying to get to know Alun Wyn Jones a little too well during one scuffle. Then with less than 10 minutes left, Ellis Genge was yellow carded for persistent offending from the team and Manu Tuilagi was given a red card for a high shot on George North, which almost cost England the game as Wales scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes. Had they had another 5 minutes, I can’t help but feel that their numerical advantage would have seen them come away with the win.

10 penalties is too many for a team to give away if they want to win a game, England need to buck up their ideas if they want to improve their chances of success in the big games.

Wales

When I asked my friend Gez (a Wales fan who has contributed on some previous posts) what he thought of Wales’ performance, I got the following reply:

So we can score against 13 and can’t defend wide, narrow or against hard runners, that’s what we’ve learned here

While I fully agree that the defensive set-up needs looking at as it is allowing teams to get around them too easily, I think that Wales’ current situation needs remembering. They have just had a change in coaches so will take a moment to adapt to a new playing style, but came into this match missing a number of players who have played key roles in the team recently: Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Tomas Francis, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell. They also had Josh Navidi, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar (who I question if he as really even 95% fit) playing having recently returned from injury and had Jake Ball and Dillon Lewis go off injured during the game and Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Aaron Shingler finish the game in varying degrees of fitness. Further to that, there were other players like Owen Lane and Willis Haloholo out injured, who could have positively impacted the team.

Given that injury list, it is hard to look into Wales performance too much right now. Yes, big improvements are needed quickly if Wales want to start winning more, but it is important to not make any snap reactions now. Having a key partnership like hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies return (or even have Halaholo covering for one of these players) with a fully fit Josh Navidi in the back row will immediately make the middle of the park feel ore secure against big runners like a Manu Tuilagi, giving a better platform to build the defence off. If the issues persist with a team much closer to the ideal XV, then change will be needed.


My standout players

Manu Tuilagi‘s game may have ended on a negative, but his hard carrying helped put England on the front foot, while Anthony Watson looked great on his return from injury. Ben Youngs also put in one of his best performances in recent years, controlling the game and exploiting a number of gaps around the breakdown.

It was harder to pick out for Wales in a largely disappointing performance, but Josh Navidi clearly had a positive impact on his return from injury and lasted the full 80 minutes, while his return also appeared to free up Justin Tipuric to have more impact in the loose. Finally, a mention for Dan Biggar, who completed the full 80 minutes despite not appearing to be fully fit after his injury last weekend and did everything he could to keep Wales in the game, though it did feel like somewhat of a kick in the teeth to keep Jarrod Evans on the bench.

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Round 3 of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Twickenham with the visit of Ireland. Andy Farrell’s men came in off the back of a great performance against Wales, but soon found themselves behind after they failed to deal with a Ben Youngs grubber, gifting George Ford a try. Issues with England’s kicking game continued and led to a try for Elliot Daly, while in attack, they rarely looked dangerous, going in 17-0 down at half time. Things evened out a little in the second half, with Robbie Henshaw soon crashing over for a try, but England’s pack and backs bundled Luke Cown-Dickie over the line from 5 metres out to secure the win. A late try for Andre Porter giving the score a bit more respectability, with John Cooney kicking the conversion to bring an end to the game, England emerging 24-12 winners to become the only team still capable of winning the Triple Crown.

England

Does Eddie Jones actually understand what a number 8 does? With Billy Vunipola missing the tournament through injury, many – myself included – were shocked at the lack of a specialist number 8 in the squad for the tournament, especially given the form of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds. With Ben Earl in incredible form for Sarries and having experience across the back row, I assumed that he was being given the shot at 8, but that chance has instead gone to Tom Curry, who has started all 3 games at the position.

Now fair play to Curry, he has looked better at the position by the week, but he is still not a specialist number 8 and it is clearly limiting the team’s options, as England have barely used the number 8 pick-up option over the first 3 rounds of the tournament, especially in an attacking sense. With England putting themselves in a comfortable position at the hour mark, it was surely time to let Ben Earl show what he could do at the position. Instead, he as kept on the bench for almost another 10 minutes and the number 8 role went to… Charlie Ewels! Certainly he added some heft to the back of the scrum, but again his inclusion at the position is limiting the effectiveness of the England scrum.

Right now, I can’t even begin to imagine how demoralising it must be for Earl and even more so for Simmonds, Dombrandt and Zach Mercer to see that the national team’s head coach will prioritise players with no/limited experience at the position even at club level over players who are putting in starring performances at the position week in, week out.

How many more players will we see thrown in at number 8 ahead of a specialist? Hopefully none, but this is Eddie Jones we’re talking about. If he is to try one more though, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ellis Genge – just imagine the destruction he would cause picking up from the base of a scrum!

Ireland

When the game is collapsing around you and everything is going wrong, you turn to your stars and leadership group on the field. But what if they are the ones causing the problem? What were they bringing to the team in this match?

  • Conor Murray looked horribly off form. His famed kicking game was woefully wayward and gifting England possession in good areas, while he could not up the pace enough to catch out the England defensive line
  • Jonathan Sexton looked anything but a former World Rugby Player of the Year. His inability to deal with a grubber into the dead ball area gifted George Ford a try, his kicking at goal was so horribly shanked to the left I was left wondering if he was seeing double and his control of the back line was best summed up with him slipping on his butt when missing a boot
  • CJ Stander’s biggest impacts in the game were the ones he made with his right hand on Owen Farrell. Yes there was provocation from Farrell, but Stander was lucky not to be penalised
  • Cian Healy (whose impact was limited by an early injury) and Tadhg Furlong were overpowered by the English pack
  • James Ryan was more noticeable for his torpedoing into breakdowns and his picking fights than he was for any actual rugby

That just isn’t good enough from a set of key players. I have been arguing that John Cooney should have been the starting scrum half all tournament, and he clearly improved the team dynamic after he came on, upping the pace to help them get behind the defence, while he as also nailed his only attempted kick at goal, a much more difficult one than one of Sexton’s missed kicks. Likewise, Caelan Doris added something late on with his carrying, making more metres per carry than anyone else in the Irish pack.

This has to be the moment when Andy Farrell moves on from some of Joe Schmidt’s stalwarts and brings in the new blood that can help the team moving forward. Will he make the swaps, or will he continue to show faith with the tried and tested players?


My standout players

As I mentioned above, John Cooney‘s introduction certainly improved the Irish performance during the second half, which should now begin his time in the 9 shirt, while Bundee Aki but in a strong defensive performance, making 10 tackles and causing issues at the breakdown, while carrying hard to try and create a platform.

For England, Manu Tuilagi‘s big hits and bigger carries set England up to dominate the game, while Man of the Match Courtney Lawes appeared to carry harder than usual, looking more at home in the 6 shirt. Similar to Gaël Fickou yesterday, I think that Jonathan Joseph put in a strong performance out of position on the left wing, with some good sniping runs in attack, while he also benefited from not really being tested by the Irish kicking game. For the last 2 picks, I’d still prefer an actual back row and winger to play the positions, but their performances today deserved recognition.

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Saturday’s second Round 2 match was a battle between Scotland and England at Murrayfield. The poor weather may have held off for the opening game of the day in Dublin, but it was at Edinburgh in full force, leading to a game full of handling errors and (often misplaced) kicks.

England went into halftime with a 0-3 lead, with Owen Farrell having missed a couple of penalties kicking into the wind, but the Scots came out firing in the second half and Adam Hastings pulled them level, but the Scots could not take advantage of their superiority and open up a lead, which proved costly as another mistake from Stuart Hogg put England in position for Ellis Genge to drive over for the only try of the game, leaving Hastings to kick a late penalty to earn a losing bonus point, with the final score 6-13.

Scotland

If you ever wanted to see the impact that momentum has on a game, you just need to watch the second half of this game. Coming out for the second half 0-3 down and playing into the wind, Scotland should have been in a worrying position, but an early break from Rory Sutherland put them right on the front foot and they refused to let up the pressure. They eventually came away with 3 points from that attack, but their tails were up and they were making the right calls, coping with the weather far better than England, who were continually kicking the ball out on the full. To fuel this momentum even more, Stuart Hogg made a great break down the left after fielding a kick, stepping his way past both Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph before slotting a grubber kick between Jonny May and George Furbank to the corner.

Scotland kept the pressure on, but the momentum started to shift as referee Pascal Gaüzère inexplicably missed/allowed the most obvious of rips on the floor from Kyle Sinckler 5m out from the England line, allowing England to clear deep into the Scotland half. The momentum then switched completely as Stuart Hogg completely failed to deal with a questioning kick from England, almost conceding a try but instead giving England a 5m scrum, which led to Genge’s try. Suddenly after this, it was Scotland who were unable to deal with the conditions and the call to take the 3 points with a late penalty was definitely the right one as it allowed them to come away from the match with something.

Obviously it’s not often that Scotland will play in such terrible conditions and they should be happy at how well they adapted to them, but they will look back at this as a game they should have won and they need to find ways to control the momentum of the game better.

England

Only England could come away from this match with a thoroughly undeserved win. This team completely failed to deal with the conditions and can consider themselves lucky that a couple of key moments went in their favour.

“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact same f***ing thing over and over again, expecting s*** to change. That is crazy.”

Vaas Montenegro – Far Cry 3

Watching this game, I couldn’t help feel that the coaches had drilled into the team to focus on kicking for the corners to turn the defence or putting the ball up high to test their handling… to the point that nobody on the pitch had the strength of leadership to move away from this tactic. After Elliot Daly made a great break down the left wing, there was a great chance for England to work an overlap to put Jonny May over in the corner, but Owen Farrell instead chose to put a grubber into the corner. Playing with the wind behind them in the second half, Willi Heinz put 3 touchline box kicks out on the full, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Elliot Daly all found their kicks going too long with astounding regularity.

Last week, England tried to run Jonathan Joseph hard at the France defence as if he was Manu Tuilagi. This week, they refused to go away from a kicking game that wasn’t working. How many more times will England continue to just do the same thing over and over again when it’s clearly not working?

Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?


My standout players

In a day of horrible conditions, I need to give some respect to Adam Hastings for running the Scotland attack so well and dealing with the weather far better than England’s more experienced playmakers.

Tom Curry had a much better game at the back of the scrum and caused some mayhem at the breakdown alongside Sam Underhill.

The big standout player for me, though, was George Furbank. After a debut to forget last week, these kind of conditions were the last thing he would have anted, but he dealt with them well and really grew into the game, looking one of the more assured players in the England back line.

Premier League: January 2020

Premier League: January 2020

February is here and the inevitable Liverpool slip-up to lose the title is looking less and less likely. The Reds won all their Premier League games in January, whereas both of their closest rivals dropped points, with Manchester City being held to a draw at home to Crystal Palace and Leicester losing 2-1 at Burnley.


Premier League Round-up


Legend in sky blue

While City’s draw against Palace made Liverpool’s title victory all the more likely, January 2020 was a big month for Sergio Agüero. The Argentine scored his 12ᵗʰ Premier League hat-trick (a league record) during their 1-6 demolition of Aston Villa, which saw him score his 176ᵗʰ Premier League goal to become the top-scoring non-British player in Premier League history. Then, against Palace, he scored his 250ᵗʰ and 251ˢᵗ goals for the club.

Agüero is a world-class player and a fantastic talent, and he has been a key part of Manchester City’s success over the last decade – it was in fact his goal with his first touch off the bench that saw them win at Sheffield United recently. A few years ago, it looked like his time at the club may be coming towards an end as he initially struggled to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s style of play, but he has got pas those issues and got back to looking like the elite player he had proved himself to be.

Only once in his Manchester City career has he failed to reach 20 goals in all competitions (17 in the 2012/13 season), which considering the issues that he has had at times with injuries shows just how good a player he is. At 31, he probably has a couple of good seasons in him as he relies on movement and positioning rather than outright pace, but City need to start making sure they have a quality replacement ready for when he is no longer available. Will Gabriel Jesus be the man? Time will tell…

Fair reward

Regular readers will know how much I hate simulation and diving. It’s disgusting, cheating and has no place in the game. I am fully on board punishment for players who are caught simulating in matches, but I also think that there needs to be more of a look at promoting good behaviour.

During Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Norwich, Anthony Martial was fouled in the box with the score at 0-0, but though he went to ground, he did not make a big deal about the challenge and instead got back to his feet to try to keep playing, however the chance was gone. And yet despite this, no penalty was awarded. The same weekend saw Theo Walcott fouled by Lewis Dunk during Everton’s 1-0 win over Brighton. Walcott was passing Dunk to go clean through on goal when Dunk pulled him back. Though Walcott tried to keep his feet, he was clearly off balance, which affected his shot, but again no penalty was awarded.

If we want to get rid of simulation, then it is important to not just penalise offenders, but also to reward players who are honest and try to play on when fouled if they are clearly not gaining an advantage. If players know that they won’t get the free kicks and penalties they deserve without throwing themselves to the ground, can we really blame them for going down so easy?

Transfer talk

The January transfer window is not really the place to get fantastic deals done, but even by normal standards, the big teams were largely underwhelming this season.

Steven Bergwijn and the permanent signature of Giovani Lo Celso add some good depth to the squad despite the departure of Christian Eriksen to Inter, but I feel that Spurs needed to find a central striker to lighten the load on Harry Kane, which became even more important with him getting injured.

Chelsea were another team who I felt needed to look at bringing in another striker as they don’t seem to trust Olivier Giroud, yet they celebrated having their transfer ban reduced by signing nobody. They are currently holding onto 4ᵗʰ spot and the potential of Champions League football next season, but this lack of a new striker could be costly.

For Arsenal, the loan signings of Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí could be just what they need to solidify their defence and see them start to climb up the table. I feel however that City made a mistake to not bring in another centreback as they have proved themselves to be weak at the back when Aymeric Laporte is missing.

Manchester United’s signings are interesting. Bruno Fernandes could be a great signing to improve the team’s chance creation and goal scoring (at time of writing after 25 rounds, they have scored just 36 goals). The signing that has the potential to be either brilliant or terrible is that of Odion Ighalo, who has joined on loan from Shanghai Shenhua until the end of the season. Ighalo has Premier League experience, having spent a couple of seasons at Watford that saw them promoted from the Championship, but his prolific start quickly faded and he went from 20 goals in 38 games to 17 in 42 to 2 in 19 before moving to China. His time in China has been prolific, with 36 goals in 55 games for Changchun Yatai and 10 in 19 for Shanghai, but at 30 years old, there will be questions over his ability to transition back from the Chinese league to one of the toughest leagues in the world. He is a United fan though and has taken a pay cut to make this dream move a reality, so it may be that this is able to help propel him on and if he can chip in with a decent number of goals, the experience he will bring to the young forwards around him will be invaluable.

The nation’s hopes in the palm of your hands…

Major tournaments and goalkeeping errors have often gone hand in hand for England over the last couple of decades. So many times we have seen an absolute howler one of the main memories from England’s World Cup or Euros campaign. Things appeared to improve for a time, first with Joe Hart then more recently with Jordan Pickford, but both began to look skittish and if I’m honest, I’ve lost a lot of faith in the Everton keeper.

What also can’t help is that it is rare in recent years that an England keeper has come from a top-table club. My personal feeling is that this harms our keepers, as even the best keeper in the league will struggle to avoid conceding if he doesn’t have the players in front of him. Jack Butland looked to be the next big thing a couple of years ago, but a disastrous campaign for Stoke saw them relegated and though Butland rarely seemed at fault for the goals, it looked like an entire season of picking the ball out of the back of his net took its toll and he has not reached the same level again since.

So with the European Championship coming up this summer, who should England take in their squad? I used the Premier League website to check the stats of the English keepers in the league as of the end of January.

Keepers
I have calculated the Save % by dividing the number of saves by the combined number of saves and goals conceded

Assuming England carry 3 keepers in their squad, Dean Henderson and Aaron Ramsdale would be my top 2 choices – with Henderson taking the number 1 shirt as not only does he have the best save percentage, but he is also playing for the most successful team this season. Henderson and Ramsdale are both inexperienced at internationals level, so I would probably look to take someone more experienced to help them adapt to the new environment, which unfortunately rules out Alex McCarthy. Ben Foster and Tom Heaton would be the next best options, but Foster is retired and Heaton out injured. Pope has been around the squad for a while, but again does not have the experience of playing in a tournament, so Jordan Pickford would take the third spot for me, more by process of elimination than on the strength of his performances.

Who would you select for the Euros?

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Six Nations 2020: France v England

Six Nations 2020: France v England

The first round of the 2020 Six Nations came to a close in Paris with France taking on England on Sunday. Les Bleus came into the tournament with a new coaching team (including Shaun Edwards, William Servat and head coach Fabien Galthié) and a heavily changed squad full of young, inexperienced players, whereas Eddie Jones’ attempts to pick almost the same 23 as he did in the World Cup Final were hampered by injuries to both Vunipolas and Anthony Watson.

Another name was soon added to the English injury list as Manu Tuilagi was replaced by Jonathan Joseph after just 15 minutes, by which point a try for Vincent Rattez – who had been promoted from the bench after a late injury to Damian Penaud – had put the French ahead. New France captain Charles Ollivon crossed for 2 tries, before Jonny May restored some English pride with 2 tries out of nowhere, allowing Owen Farrell to kick a penalty with the clock expired to earn a bonus point, the game ending in a 24-17 victory for the home team.

France

Jefferson Poirot and Demba Bamba are 2 fantastic props in open play. Bamba is a wrecking ball who will carry and tackle hard, while Poirot managed to earn 2 penalties with his poaching at the breakdown. While these are both fantastic qualities, the first job of a prop is at scrum time… and here, they struggled. With Cyril Baille and Mohammed Haouas starting, the scrums were relatively even, but after the swaps were made in the 49ᵗʰ minute, the England scrum became dominant and was pushing the French back with ease.

Bamba is still a very young prop with limited top flight experience, so I only expect him to improve over the coming years as he gets to spend more time working with elite scrummaging coaches, but in the meantime the coaches must be careful not to leave him too exposed in the set piece. The scrum did appear to shore itself up somewhat with the change at hooker from Julien Marchand to Peato Mauvaka. Assuming that Camille Chat takes the starting spot back when he is fit, it will be interesting to see if Marchand or Mauvaka is selected as his replacement.

England

“Test match rugby requires experience and France have decided not to take experience in, they’ve gone with youth. And they might be wrong, they might right. We don’t know but it’s going to test those young players because they will have never have played against a brutal physicality and intensity that we are going to play with on Sunday.

This is not domestic rugby. You don’t get that intensity in domestic rugby. That’s why you call it Test rugby. You don’t get that in Under-20s competitions. So at stages they’re going to be looking at each other wanting to know where the answers are going to come from. There are not too many of them who have experienced that before. They don’t have the experienced players to call on to say “what do you do?” and that’s going to be our intent.

We played with that brutal physicality for the last four years and we just want to get better at it.”

Eddie Jones, 2019

Those were the words of Eddie Jones in the week preceding this match. Perhaps if he had spent more time ensuring he had picked the best possible squad rather than throwing verbal grenades at the French, England may have actually turned up. Instead, most of the players looked like their heads were still in Japan, or looking ahead to Championship rugby next season.

From the moment the wider squad was selected, I was nervous at the lack of specialised number 8 in this squad. What this match showed me is that Tom Curry is not the answer at this level, as he never looked comfortable at the base of the scrum. I have never really been comfortable with the use of Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes as a starting international 6, and this performance from Lawes did nothing to change that as the back row never felt balanced. Meanwhile Ben Youngs continued to show that he is not good enough to be the starting scrum half for England at this point (Willi Heinz upped the tempo massively with his introduction and made considerably less errors) and Elliot Daly looked so woefully off form that the question shouldn’t be if he is a 15, but instead if he has a place in this 23!

Performances over recent seasons have shown the importance of a couple of big ball carriers to this squad, so it’s no surprise to see that England’s attack disappeared the moment that Manu Tuilagi went off injured. The squad was left with nobody who could carry for the hard metres, while Alex Dombrandt was putting his feet up after a 2-try performance for Harlequins in the Premiership Rugby Cup semifinal earlier that afternoon. Regardless of Manu Tuilagi’s status for next weekend (but especially if he is unavailable), Eddie Jones needs to look at bringing in some big ball carriers for next week. Though neither was in the wider squad, I think this week showed the need to bring in either Sam Simmonds or Alex Dombrandt to play at 8, while Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie should also be looking to start in order to provide more carrying options. Heck, even throwing in Ollie Thorley woul provide a more physical option in the back line.

Will Jones make the necessary changes? I won’t hold my breath.


My standout players

About the only player who came away from this game with an enhanced reputation for England was Jonny May, whose 2 tries from nowhere allowed England to come away with a much more respectable scoreline than they deserved.

For France, scrum half Antoine Dupont controlled the game well (bar one moment at the end where the stadium clock was inaccurate), put in a huge tackle on Willi Heinz when England had a chance to score and also tore the defence apart with one great break, which led directly to Ollivon’s second try.

Captain Charles Ollivon also deserves praise as he led the team from the front, winning a number of lineouts and also carrying for more metres than anyone else on the pitch on his way to scoring 2 tries.

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

It’s that time of year again: the Six Nations is just one week away! This season will see 4 of the 6 nations going into the tournament with new head coaches as everybody looks to move on from the 2019 Rugby World Cup and begin a 4-year build towards glory in France in 2023.

It has become a custom of mine to look at each nation’s squad ahead of the tournament to pick out one player per team that is not widely known on the international scene, but that you should keep an eye on this season. Do you think I missed someone? Let me know in the comments.

England

England come into the tournament with 8 uncapped players in their squad, but I think the one most likely to have an impact on this Six Nations is Ben Earl. The 22-year-old covers the entire back row and with no specialist number 8 in the squad, I think that he has a very good chance of making the shirt his own throughout the tournament. He has been developing well at Sarries for a couple of seasons, but this has truly been his breakout season and after 8 rounds of Premiership Rugby action, he is the top try scorer (6) and joint 2ⁿᵈ (but top among just forwards) for clean breaks (12). While combining him with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill may leave a back row with limited international experience, it is one that should never be taken lightly.

France

So this is a bit of a difficult one as France have selected a whopping 19 uncapped players, but due to Top 14 rugby not being available to watch in the UK currently, I have had limited opportunity to see these players in action. Matthieu Jalibert and Louis Carbonel create a great trio of young fly halves along with Romain Ntamack. For this pick, I have gone with Camille Chat, who is a little more experienced with 26 caps to his name, but has often been second fiddle to former captain Guilhem Guirado. Already and experience international but now given the chance to come out of his shadow, Chat has a chance to show his quality and become the man at hooker for the next 2 World Cup cycles.

Ireland

If Andy Farrell wants to be taken seriously as Ireland’s new head coach, then Conor Murray’s tenure as Ireland’s starting scrum half will be coming to an end, with John Cooney taking over the number 9 shirt. The Ulster halfback is one of the form players in Europe at the moment, with 5 tries and a super-reliable boot leaving him the top point scorer from the Champions Cup pool stages. Murray and Johnny Sexton are not getting any younger and it feel like this could be the moment that Cooney establishes himself as the man for this World Cup cycle.

Italy

So regular readers will know my love for Jake Polledri and after good performances in the World Cup, this will be the moment that he truly breaks out into an international superstar. The Gloucester back row can play at flanker or number 8 and will be a fantastic replacement for the departing Sergio Parisse. Polledri is deceptively strong and hard to put down – it is vary rare that he will go backwards in contact – but he also has good pace to exploit any gap that opens in front of him and will cause problems at the break down too.

Scotland

Judging by his form in 2019 and the early weeks of 2020, Gregor Townsend must seriously be regretting leaving Rory Hutchinson out of his World Cup squad. The Northampton centre is capable of slotting in at either 12 or 13 and brings and incredible attacking talent to the team. He has the potential to have the same positive impact that Huw Jones had when he first came into the Scotland squad and should be one of the players they build around over the coming years.

Wales

I really wanted to pick Louis Rees-Zammit here and also want to give an honourable mention to Nick Tompkins, but there is a player who I have loved watching for a couple of years and is now eligible for Wales: Johnny McNicholl. The Scarlets star is an exceptional attacking talent either at wing or fullback, finishing in the top 5 for tries scored in the Pro14 for the last 2 seasons – despite Scarlet’s struggles last season! Already 29, he will not be around long term, but I expect him to quickly establish himself as a key part of the Wales squad for the next 4 years.


While watching the Six Nations is always fun anyway, one thing that has really improved it for me the last couple of seasons has been doing fantasy rugby with my friends, and I’m opening the opportunity for you to join in too!

I am running a fantasy rugby league on The Rugby Magazine’s website, and you are all welcome to join. There is no buy-in and no prize, this is just for fun. You can join the league here and use the Unique Token b6c1e40d48e6

Six Nations 2020: The England Squad

Six Nations 2020: The England Squad

We are less than 2 weeks from the beginning of the Six Nations and – as of today – we know the squads of all 6 teams in the competition. Eddie Jones announced his 34-man squad at midday today, with their first match since being humbled by South Africa in the World Cup final coming on Sunday 2ⁿᵈ February away to France.

England’s 34-man squad

(denotes apprentice players who are not full members of the squad)

Hooker: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George, Tom Dunn

Prop: Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge, Harry Williams, Kyle Sinckler, Will Stuart, Joe Marler

Back 5: Alex Moon, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Ted Hill, Ben Earl, Tom Curry, Lewis Ludlam, Sam Underhill

Scrum half: Ben Youngs, Willi Heinz (Alex Mitchell)

Fly Half: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jacob Umaga

Centre: Ollie Devoto, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Joseph, Fraser Dingwall

Back 3: Elliot Daly, George Furbank, Jonny May, Ollie Thorley, Anthony Watson (Josh Hodge)

So right now, I find myself less-than enthusiastic about this squad and don’t really understand what Eddie Jones is going for. Some selections suggest that this is a look to the future with some of the young talent being brought in, but there are then also other selections that make me wonder if Eddie is really caring about the future.

At hooker, there’s not really much surprise there with Dylan Hartley retired and Jack Singleton depriving himself of regular rugby by joining Saracens. George will be the starter and Cowan-Dickie will continue to make an impact off the bench.

Moving onto the props, it’s not really a surprise to see England move on from Dan Cole, but the form of Will Stuart for Bath means that things look promising at tighthead. I can see Sinkler starting at 3 with Stuart off the bench, while Harry Williams is a strong 3ʳᵈ choice here. I must admit that with the quality of looseheads out there, I am a little surprised that Joe Marler has remained available and think that this could impact England in the long-term if he does not plan to continue through RWC2023. To me, this was when Ellis Genge should have been becoming a regular in the 23, but it looks like he will be having to target the Italy match while Vunipola and Marler take most of the minutes.

And so we come to the locks, of which there are a lot, so many that I will actually just ignore Ted Hill here and count him as a flanker. There’s no real surprises in the selection of the usual 5 (Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Maro Itoje and Charlie Ewels), but Alex Moon is a massive shock and I don’t understand how he has justified a spot here off of so little 1ˢᵗ XV rugby for Northampton, especially when you consider it means that players like Lawes and Itoje will likely spend time in the back row in favour of top-quality specialist back rowers who have been ignored.

In the back row, there is a immediate and obvious lack of players at a key position. Ted Hill, Ben Earl, Tom Curry, Lewis Ludlam and Sam Underhill are all fantastic players in the back row, but with Billy Vunipola out injured, there is no specialist number 8 in this squad, which for a Tier 1 nation is frankly ridiculous. I am really happy to see Earl in this squad as he has been one of the form players this season for Sarries, but I can’t help feel that all of these players should have been included, with at least one of Moon and Ewels (or maybe Hill) being dropped for Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt, who are more experienced number 8s and have been shown that good form means nothing to Eddie Jones  – Alex Goode is sending them memberships to the snub club as you read this.

On to scrum half and this is only a look to the future if Eddie Jones has found the fountain of Youth. Ben Youngs has been in this squad on the strength of his name for a while and it was time for him to make way as he will be 34 come the next World Cup, while Willi Heinz is already 33! Neither of these has a long future in the England squad, whereas apprentice player Alex Mitchell seems to suggest that Dan Robson and Ben Spencer have just had the door slammed shut in their face again!

At fly half, George Ford and Owen Farrell are no real surprise, but Jacob Umaga was a shock. He has been playing well this season, but I’m not sure if he is currently ahead of both Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds and a cynical part of me wonders if he is being selected so that they can cap him and make him ineligible for Samoa (who I had him representing in an ideal world where the game is growing and the Pacific Islands are looking attractive to eligible players). It will be interesting to see how much time he gets during the tournament, as the loss of Henry Slade to injury limits the number of playmakers at centre, so I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Owen Farrell is used more as a centre than a fly half.

At centre, Tuilagi and Joseph are a great combo (or Farrell/Tuilagi) assuming Manu can stay fit, while Ollie Devoto is a fine player who has done very well for Exeter. The Fraser Dingwall selection surprises me, however. He is certainly a future star but at the moment he isn’t even a regular starter at Northampton, while Mark Atkinson – who has been in the form of his life the last couple of seasons – appears to have not even been considered once again.

And finally we come to the back 3. Jack Nowell’s omission was a shock, but if he can keep himself injury free for the rest of the season and get back to top form then I think he has every chance of getting back into the squad for the summer tour. Being a Gloucester fan, I have loved watching Ollie Thorley over the last couple of seasons and think that he brings a great balance of pace and power that will cause people issues. At just 23, he could be the long-term future for England. May and Watson are fantastic wingers that will scare any opponent, but Elliot Daly at 15 is an experiment that should have finished last season and I really hope that George Furbank is given a legitimate chance to claim the 15 shirt. Finally a quick word on apprentice Josh Hodge, who impressed me when I saw him for the U20s, but similar to Mitchell, I don’t think a call-up is warranted at this moment, even as an apprentice.

What do you think of the squad?


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The RWC2019 Debrief: England

The RWC2019 Debrief: England

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over England.

RWC2019 Qualification

Though they failed to make it out of the pools in 2015, England still qualified for the tournament by finishing 3rd in their pool.

2019 Form

After a pretty awful 2018, England finished 2nd in the Six Nations with a loss away to Wales and a draw against Scotland (in a match that they had led 31-7 at half time. In their warm-up matches, England lost narrowly in Wales, but won comfortably at home against Wales, Ireland and Italy, holding the Azzurri scoreless.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (1st in Pool C)
    • England 35-3 Tonga
    • England 45-7 USA
    • England 39-10 Argentina
    • England C-C France
  • Quarterfinal
    • England 40-16 Australia
  • Semifinal
    • England 19-7 New Zealand
  • Final
    • England 12-32 South Africa

It was a bit of an odd tournament for England, as the challenge they faced in the pools was very limited, leaving a number of questions as to how prepared they were for the knockouts. Tonga provided a physical opposition, but the challenge that they and the USA could present was always going to struggle against an improved England defence that conceded just 1 try in 3 matches (against Italy, Tonga and the USA). Then against Argentina, the challenge was over when Tomás Lavanini got himself red carded early in the first half, leaving England to pick off 14 men. While England showed some dominance in these games, especially in the scrums and mauls, they were far from inspiring and struggled to get regular cohesiveness in their attacking play. Typhoon Hagibis led to the cancellation of their match against France which would have been an interesting challenge and decided the pool standings.

Moving into the knockouts, it looked like the extra rest actually helped England find their groove. Their victories against Australia and New Zealand were both built on incredible defensive work and flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill thoroughly outplaying their more experienced rivals, while the attack finally hit its stride in these games.

Unfortunately, England were unable to do it 3 weeks running as they faced a much more physical outfit who there were unable to bully off the ball. Kyle Sinckler had done a great job of establishing himself as one of the best tightheads in the world through this tournament, so to lose him after just 3 minutes and require Dan Cole to play basically an entire game was always going to be hard. England were pushed around almost at will by the Springbok scrums and mauls, while their defence did a great job of shutting down everything England could produce. Meanwhile, England’s own defence conceded 2 late tries to end the game, the first highlighting risk that had been taken all year of playing Elliot Daly (who was caught in no-man’s land for the first try) at 15 in place of more recognised fullbacks Mike Brown and Alex Goode – who weren’t selected for the squad – or Anthony Watson, who was selected on the wing.

Was this a good tournament for England? I didn’t think they had a chance of beating New Zealand to make the final, so yes it was. It’s just ended on a sour note tinged with what-ifs.

Looking Ahead

The good news for this team is that the core of this team are so young. Their 3 biggest stars from this tournament – Tom Cury, Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill – will only be 25, 28 and 27 respectively when the next tournament comes around, while a number of the other big names will be in their early 30s at most. Add to that the way that young English talent continues to come through at club level and the squad will be brimming with stars in 4 years. Personally, I would love to see a return for the England Saxons in order to help the young talent get more international experience, perhaps playing Tier 2 nations like the Pacific Islanders.

The big question for me right now is coaching. While Eddie Jones did a great job of turning around a team at their lowest following the 2015 tournament, I feel that his public attitude is abysmal, while a number of players who arguably could and should have been in contention for the squad (perhaps even the starting XV) were not even considered for a spot on the plane, while some players appeared undroppable regardless of how their form deteriorated. The Elliot Daly at 15 experiment needs to end as he is a defensive liability and struggles to compete in the air, putting the team at risk against teams with a strong kicking game. Right now, Jones is contracted to England until 2021, but I would rather see the RFU thank him for creating the platform for success and move onto someone else, who can then spend the next 4 years building a young team for glory in France.

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

We are mere days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.

With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Today, we’re moving onto Pool C

England

As someone who can’t go a day without talking English/Premiership rugby, it wasn’t easy for me to figure out who would be the lesser-known players in the England squad. I eventually settled on Joe Cokanasiga, who at 21 years old and with just 2 seasons of Premiership Rugby under his belt is still relatively unknown. While many of the England back 3 are fast, agile but not overly physical players, Cokanasiga relishes in the physical game while also having the speed to trouble defences. Assuming the defenders manage to successfully tackle him, they then have to hope he doesn’t get the offload away. With tries against Japan and Australia in the 2018 November Tests, expect to see him adding to that list during the tournament.

France

While Antoine Dupont deserves a mention, I’ve picked Damian Penaud here for Les Bleus. Capable of playing centre but often used on the wing for the national team, Penaud has 2 tries from 11 Test matches, including 2 in this year’s Six Nations. He really appeared to come into his own down the stretch for Clermont however, and I expect him to be even better now with more experience under his belt… assuming the rest of the team perform.

Argentina

Argentina are spoiled for choice in the outside backs, but one player who looked to have all-but secured his spot in the XV before injury was winger Bautista Delguy. At just 22 years old, the winger already has 5 tries from 11 caps, including 3 from 5 Rugby Championship appearances. Argentina will create chances but don’t always have the composure to finish them. Delguy on the wing gives them that.

USA

Having won the Pro12 with Connacht and spent 3 seasons with Sale, AJ MacGinty still goes relatively under the radar, but my pick here instead goes to Joe Taufete’e. The Worcester hooker has found himself stuck behind Jack Singleton in recent seasons, but has shown his quality for the Eagles with 20 tries from 22 appearances, making him the tight 5 player with the most international tries. With experience of his English opponents and a strong runner with ball in hand, Taufete’e is one of the players leading USA rugby into a new era.

Tonga

At 31 years old, Sione Kalamafoni is a well-established player, but despite plenty of years in the Premiership with Gloucester and Leicester, is someone who goes relatively under the radar. Kalamafoni has vital experience to help Tonga in a tough pool, while he will tackle all… day… long. On top of that, he also has a good turn of pace in the loose that will catch the opposition out if they leave him too much space.

Who are you looking out for during the tournament?


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Will you be picking any of these players in your squad?

Eyes On: England v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

England brought their warm-ups for the World Cup to a close at St James’ Park on Friday night with a match against Italy. England started slow and were lucky to not go behind as Tommaso Benvenuti knocked on close to the line, Owen Farrell’s boot giving England a 9-0 halftime lead. Ben Youngs, who was much improved from last week, crossed the line early in the second half. George Ford was introduced for Piers Francis soon after (with Owen Farrell moving to 12) and this led to an improvement in England’s performance and tries for Joe Marchant, Ellis Genge and Anthony Watson, while the Azzurri were unable to get any points on the board, resulting in a 37-0 final score.

 

England

No offence to Italy, but this was never a match that England should be losing. As such, I think Eddie Jones dropped the ball here by not using the match to prepare his squad even more for the trials of a World Cup.

While it was great to see Ruaridh McConnochie finally make his debut, I feel that he should have been given the full 80 minutes to get used to international rugby, as he is now going to the tournament with barely any international 15s experience. Jack Singleton is going with hardly any more experience to his name and his recent appearances have been cameos in the back row – there was no need to risk Jamie George in this game with 2 other hookers available! Moving onto another specialist position, Eddie Jones decided to take only 2 scrum halves to Japan and name George Ford as their emergency 9. As such, I would have made sure he got some time practising the position in a Test match in case he is called upon during the tournament, and what better one than in this final game against an opposition that would probably be a little more forgiving if he made a mistake.

Saying all this, it was great to see Anthony Watson moved to the 15 position. Elliot Daly has not looked completely comfortable at the position, but Watson (admittedly under less pressure) looked very calm there and I think should be given the starting 15 spot, especially as Daly could move back to 13 if Henry Slade is not 100% ready to play.

Italy

It feels like every week I’m coming on here criticising Italy for their attack, but it just isn’t good enough. I’ve been very clear at how I think the attack needs more variety and it became clear in this match. A great multi-phase move off a lineout led to a great break through Seb Negri (who was fantastic in this match) and Carlo Canna, but once they got to the England 5m line the attack stalled and they were slowly pushed back over 20 phases until they spread it wide and Benvenuti knocked on just a few metres out. England’s defensive line comes up fast and Italy had no answer to it, but something as simple as a tip-on pass or an inside ball would have kept the defence on their feet and probably also forced them to commit more players inside, giving Benvenuti the space to finish off the attack and score the try. South Africa also favour a defensive line that shoots up fast, so Italy need to be looking at their tactics if they want to have any chance of upsetting the Springboks.

It wasn’t just the attacking tactics, but also the kickoffs that perplexed me. Every time, they were kicking long, giving Ben Youngs all the time in the world to pick his spot when kicking to touch. It may have meant that Italy were getting the ball back with a lineout, but it was never with good territory. Italy really need to look at varying their kickoffs to keep the opposition guessing, while also making some of the kicks more contestable or closer to the chasing players to try putting pressure on the moment the opposition catch the ball.


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