They brought it home

They brought it home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia v England: Team of the Series

Australia v England: Team of the Series

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia v England: The 2022 Decider

Australia v England: The 2022 Decider

With a win apiece over the last 2 weeks, Sydney was the venue for the deciding third Test between England and Australia. With all of the Home Nations losing their series opener but winning in week 2, Ireland’s win over New Zealand just an hour earlier will have left the Wallabies hoping that the pattern was not going o continue for a third week, and they had the first chance as the ball came right off a scrum on the England 22, only for Reece Hodge’s pass to go behind Tom Wright with just Freddie Steward trying to get across and cover. Instead it was Owen Farrell who opened the scoring with a penalty after 17 minutes as both teams fought for dominance. A period of England pressure saw Nic White and Michael Hooper force Jack Nowell to enter the breakdown from the side for a Wallabies penalty, and after clearing their lines to touch, the Wallabies worked a clever overlap on first phase to release Tom Wright on the wing, who then fed Nic White inside and remained up with play to take the return ball and go over in the corner for the opening try, Lolesio adding the extras from the touchline. Lolesio added a penalty, with Farrell kicking one of his own before hitting the post with another, but England had one more chance at the end of the half as they kicked a penalty to the corner, and after Tommy Freeman was stopped on the line by Wright, Jack van Poortvliet put his Tigers teammate Steward over in the corner for a 10-11 lead at the break.

It was England with the momentum after the restart, and with Ellis Genge carrying as if his life depended on it, Farrell was soon able to stretch the lead with another penalty, and when Noah Lolesio fumbled an overthrown lineout, Marcus Smith beat Samu Kerevi to the loose ball and accelerated through the gap to score under the posts. The Wallabies fought back though and started to gain some dominance as the replacements began to enter the fray, and after Pete Samu was denied in the corner by a last ditch tackle from Steward, Folau Fainga’a forced his way over from close range following a lineout in the corner, Lolesio’s conversion making it a 4-point game with 14 minutes left. Australia had the momentum, but the English defence held firm and the visitors ran out 17-21 victors to earn a 2-1 series victory.

Building to success

While australia will be disappointed to have lost the series, there are plenty of positives to take as they look ahead to next year’s World Cup.

The loss of Quade Cooper brought Lolesio back to the fore and he put in good displays to show that he has grown and fought back from being devastated at the hands of the All Blacks. Valentini has continued to grow as an 8 at Test level, Hunter Paisami continues to develop alongside Samu Kerevi, Angus Bell got plenty of minutes under his belt, while injuries and suspensions saw Nick Frost look impressive in his first Tests.

And it’s not just the youngsters, as David Porecki looked to bring some reliability to the set piece, which has been an area where the Wallabies have struggled, while James Slipper reminded us all of his versatility by returning to his preferred loosehead position this week after covering the tighthead side for 2 weeks, and Pete Samu looked super dangerous off the bench.

With players like Neville, Swain, Cooper, Perese and Petaia all to come back from injury and suspension—not to mention Tupou, who will only get better over the coming weeks as he returns to full fitness—the Wallabies are developing a strength in depth and are growing. If they continue to grow, they will be putting themselves in a great spot going into World Cup.

The end?

I hate to say it, but we may have just seen the end of Danny Care’s England career. The Quins scrum half has been in fantastic for with his club for the last couple of years and finally made his return to the national team after years out in the wilderness.

After last week’s wonderful performance from Jack van Poortvliet, many would have expected the Leicester 9 get another start, but Care was given the 9 shirt for the game… and honestly struggled. His first box kick was charged down, he got his arm scragged at a ruck by Michael Hooper as he tried to play the ball away, and there were other moments where he looked to be struggling. But to be pulled off before halftime was one of those brutal moves that we have seen a few times from Eddie Jones, an it has usually heralded the end of the player’s Test career, with Luther Burrell and Teimana Harrison disappearing and Nick Isiekwe having to fight hard for years to get back to the fringes of the squad.

Is Test rugby beyond Care? I don’t think so. I think that, much like Marcus Smith, he is struggling at properly adapt to this attacking gameplan, as the team doesn’t look to build on their breaks and instead appears to reset at every breakdown, which leads to the ball being kicked away after a couple of phases. That’s not the way the Quins boys play and it’s not the way that England should be either, while Care would have probably also benefited more from coming on later in the game to take advantage of the gaps as the Wallabies tire.

With van Poortvliet surely in line to be an ever-present in the 23 and young 9s like Alex Mitchell having impressed for Saints and Harry Randall for Bristol and England, it feels like this early replacement may have ended Care’s return to the Test scene before he got a chance to truly prove himself.

Australia v England

Australia v England

After their first win over England since RWC2015, Australia were looking to make it 2 from 2 so far this summer as they faced England in Brisbane. The Wallabies were disrupted last week by injuries just before and during the first half, and this match started in similar fashion with Jordan Petaia—on his first Test start at 15—got his head on the wrong side of a tackle and was replaced by Izaia Perese, and the Wallabies barely had time to reorganise before England were ahead, with Billy Vunipola being driven over from a 5m lineout. Farrell kicked the conversion and 2 penalties, and when Marcus Smith threw a wide pass towards Tommy Freeman in the Australian 22, Izaia Perese just failed to catch it one-handed and was duly sent to the bin for what was considered a deliberate knock-on, with referee Andrew Brace and TMO Joy Neville apparently seeing the same phantom covering defender that popped up in Dunedin just hours earlier and adjudging just a penalty (which Farrell kicked) rather than a penalty try. Farrell added another penalty as Perese’s card was coming to an end, but then the Wallabies celebrated a return to 15 men with their first foray into the English 22, and Taniela Tupou topped it off by crashing over for the try, Noah Lolesio adding the extras for a 7-19 scoreline. England were dealt a further blow just before the break as Maro Itoje failed to get low enough when trying to tackle Hunter Paisami and instead found his head making heavy contact with the centre’s shoulder to bring his tour to an early end.

The second half started much like the first for Australia: with an injury. Samu Kerevi ried a soft chip out to the wing for Perese, but as the young Waratahs back came back to ground he appeared to injure his knee, requiring him to leave the pitch on a stretcher. Farrell opened the scoring in the half with another penalty, but Australia were soon on the attack and after Taniela Tupou was stopped just short of the line, Samu Kerevi was sent over out wide, Lolesio adding the extras to narrow the deficit to 8. Australia continued to be beset by injuries as Scott Sio’s game came to an end just seconds after coming on, but they were fighting on and soo found themselves with the numerical advantage as Marcus Smith was pinged for a deliberate knock-on, Lolesio kicking the resulting penalty. Cadeyrn Neville was the next Wallabies player to leave the pitch injured to hand Nick Frost his Test debut. As the game entered the final hour, Farrell found Jack Nowell in space with a kick-pass to bring England into the 22, and though they were eventually held up over the line, they had won another penalty which the Saracens fly half duly kicked for 3 more points. As the final substitutions were made while the clock ticked down, the game fell into a degree of disarray, and while Farrell lost his perfect kicking percentage with a late attempt, Australia could not create any final chances and fell to a 17-25 defeat.

The best laid plans…

You can’t help but feel for Australia in this series. Test rugby at the top level is hard enough at the best of times, but it becomes so much harder when players are going down injured left, right and centre.

Last week, Taniela Tupou was unavailable ahead of selection, and was joined by intended starting fly half Quade Cooper in the pre-match warm-up, while Tom Banks and Allan Ala’alatoa were also lost to injury in that match. This week, Tupou was back to take Ala’alatoa’s place, but the game saw Petaia, Sio, Neville and Perese all lost to injury.

As Robert Burns said in his poem To a Mouse: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley,” To suffer so many injuries in a match is always going to make it hard to get momentum and consistency, especially when you are forced into reshuffles as Australia were by the loss of Jordan Petaia with no recognised fullback on the bench, while Angus Bell clearly struggled as the game wound down due to playing 89 minutes with just a 1-minute break for the moment Sio was on the pitch.

I hate to see injuries play such a key part in a match, so I will continue to argue that though teams should still have a limited number of substitutions per match, they should be able to have the rest of the 30-man squad available on the bench rather than just 8 replacements, as this will reduce the disruption to teams from circumstances outside of their control, while also reducing the chances of running out of trained front rowers like we saw when Hame Faiva was red carded against Ireland.

New kid on the block

I’ve been arguing for some time now that Ben Youngs is no longer playing at the level required to be in the England Test team. Well he may be watching his spot in the Test squad disappear right now courtesy of his Leicester teammate Jack van Poortvliet.

The 21-year-old Tiger, played an absolute blinder on his first Test start. He provided quick ball for the backs, marshalled his pack to take advantage of their dominance and kept the Australian defence on their toes when he looked to take the ball on himself.

But what really stood out was his box kicking. This is often why Youngs is talked about as still being in the team, but van Poortvliet just did the job miles better, with every kick either able to be contested in the air or setting up the chaser to make the hit as soon as the Australian player landed.

It’s clear that van Poortvliet has paid attention learning alongside Youngs and Richard Wigglesworth. And much like his fellow Tiger Freddie Steward, he ha come into Test rugby and immediately looked like a veteran—and a damn good quality one at that! If he can continue to put in performances like this, it will be impossible to drop him.

Australia v England

Australia v England

With their embarrassment at the hands of the Barbarians a couple of weeks behind them, England looked to kick off their Summer Test series against Australia with a win in Perth. The Wallabies suffered a late injury to starting fly half Quade Cooper, which saw Noah Lolesio elevated to the starting team during the warm-up, and it was the young fly half whose holding on penalty allowed Owen Farrell to kick England into a 0-3 lead after 6 minutes. As the half went on, both teams failed to really get any rhythm through a number of handling errors and penalties—bar one chance for England that was stopped by a wonderful cover tackle on Joe Marchant—but Farrell doubled England’s lead after 20 minutes with another penalty when David Porecki failed to support his own weight a the ruck. There was soon even more disruption for the Wallabies as Tom Banks suffered a serious injury to his arm following an awkward landing when competing for a high ball, which led to Jordan Petaia coming on at wing and Andrew Kellaway moving to 15, however the pack took it on themselves and won a penalty from the scrum restart, which Lolesio kicked over. Farrell just failed to restore the 6-point lead after the injured Allan Ala’alatoa failed to roll away at the breakdown, with James Slipper coming on to replace the Brumbies tighthead. Things soon got even worse for the Wallabies as they finally got some possession in the English 22; Jonny Hill was sent to the bin for deliberately pulling on Darcy Swain’s hair—not the first time he had gone too far in his battle with Swain during the match, but the first time he was penalised—but replays showed that Swain then reacted and attempted a headbutt, which resulted in him receiving a red card. Despite everything though, the Wallabies ended the half positively and Noah Lolesio managed to level the scores at 6-6 with the final kick of the half after a strong carry from Rob Leota.

As Hill’s sin bin period came to an end in the opening moments of the second half, Lolesio put the Wallabies ahead with a third penalty. Looking to utilise their man advantage, England put their next penalty to the corner and mauled Ellis Genge over for the opening try of the game, though Farrell’s kick from the right-hand 5m channel just pulled across the face of the goal. England found themselves with another chance in the same corner with the hour approaching, but the Australian maul defence—bolstered by the arrival of Matt Philip for Rob Leota—held firm and after a couple of phases, Matthew Hooper timed his arrival at the breakdown to win a huge penalty that allowed the Wallabies to clear their lines. Farrell kicked a penalty on the hour to extend the lead to 5, but Jack Nowell’s failure to claim the restart put them under immediate pressure, which resulted in Petaia crashing over on the wing to level the scores and Lolesio kicking the conversion to put the home team ahead, while things got even worse for England just minutes later as Billy Vunipola was binned for a high tackle on Michael Hooper, with the Wallabies taking advantage of the parity in numbers as Folau Fainga’a peeled off the back of a 5m maul to get over the line, Lolesio adding the extras. As the clock ticked into the final five minutes, an unlikely Wallabies win was looking more certain, and when Pete Samu stepped around Lewis Ludlam and carried through the tackle of Will Stuart, he managed to reach the line and secure the victory, and though Henry Arundell scored with his first touch of the ball and Jack van Poortvliet scored at the death with Lolesio in the bin, it just put an undeserved gloss on the match for them as they lost 30-28.

Simple but effective

Rugby is a simple game: you pass backwards, run forwards and try to outscore your opponents. Australia must have felt the gods were against them with Quade Cooper’s injury in warm-up being exacerbated by injuries to Banks and Ala’alatoa (made worse by Taniela Tupou already being out injured) and Swain’s red card.

And yet they often looked the more dangerous team, despite Lolesio often looking out of his depth for much of the match. And this was because they kept things simple.

In players like Leota, Bell, Samu and Valentini they had willing carriers in the forwards, who would work alongside inside centre Samu Kerevi and wing Marika Koroibete—who is frequently used coming in off his wing—to get the Wallabies on the front foot with repeated carries over the gain line. With consistent quick ball that is breaching the gain line, the game becomes easy for an attacking team, as the defense is constantly in retreat and has no chance to get settled and organised, so it is then just a matter of being patient and exploiting the mismatch (the classic prop stuck in the centre channel) or the overlap, which Australia’s backs have the quality to finish.

Time for change

I’ve given England a bit of slack with their failed attempts to play “formationless” attacking rugby as they have been playing with just 1 playmaker in their back line. However, today they played both Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell and still struggled to make any impact on the game, despite playing against 14 men for over half the game, which would have automatically created more space for them to exploit.

Something is drastically wrong with this England attack, and it needs changing immediately. Lawes cannot be taking up the space of a potential ball carrier at 6 and should be moved back into the second row, and England need to start looking at players and a shape that will allow them to get 3 to 4 consecutive phases of quick ball over the gain line in midfield, as this will then create the space for the wings to exploit. Just look at Australia’s success today!

In Smith and Farrell, England have 2 world class talents, but they look overwhelmed trying to run this attack and need something more conventional to get this back line going. Yes it may be missing Manu Tuilagi, but that is the case more often than not with England in this cycle, so it can no longer be used as an excuse. And if the head coach can’t—or won’t—fix this, then it’s time to move on.

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

England v Barbarians

England v Barbarians

With Freddie Burns kicking Leicester to a late victory over Saracens, the Premiership Rugby season came to an end and the eyes of English fans turned to the Summer Tests as England kicked off the action at Twickenham with a match against the Barbarians, which saw the invitational team win 52-21 despite playing the entire second half a man down following a red card to WIll Skelton.

Of course the Baabaas are always going to be tough to judge as the are full of quality individuals but have little time together as a team, and similarly this was an England team missing its Leicester and Saracens players, so we can expect a very different team when England kick off their tour, but what can England learn from this match?

England: 21

Tries: Joe Cokanasiga (36′), Jonny May (51′), Marcus Smith (60′)

Penalties: Marcus Smith (16′, 35′) 

Barbarians: 52

Tries: Penalty (18′), Charles Ollivon (24′), Damian Penaud (38′,55′) Baptiste Couilloud (46′), Louis Carbonel (67′), Max Spring (74′), Antoine Hastoy (79′)

Conversions: Antoine Hastoy (25′, 68′), George Kruis (47′, 75′, 80′)

Toothless

It’s not easy being an England fan these days.

There are some bad teams in rugby, but very few look as toothless or lost in attack as England. Eddie Jones has made a big thing of this “formationless rugby” that he wants to play, but too often when they have played this year, they have just looked lost.

Today was another such occasion. England made a couple of midfield breaks through the forwards in the early minutes, but there was no cohesion in the play, and it’s notable that their sole try in the first half came from countering a kick rather than going through the phases. It wasn’t really until the introduction of Danny Care early in the second half (by which point Will Skelton’s red card had left England with a 1-man advantage) that England started to find some shape and cohesion, scoring a couple of tries. But even then, many attacks came to dull endings or saw England letting men get isolated and turned over.

Granted it is probably an attacking style that benefits from a group of players who are used to playing together (which would of course hamper this cobbled together team) but with the World Cup just over a year away and a lot of questions still regarding the England line-up, are they running out of time. Can Owen Farrell’s experience get this attack working, either alongside Marcus Smith or in pace of him? Or is it time for Eddie Jones to consider this another failed experiment and go back to a more conventional attack.

Awful day for Atkinson

With Manu Tuilagi’s inability to stay match fit, something that England have continually lacked under Eddie Jones has been an answer for when he is not available. While Eddie Jones has usually chosen to go for a more lightweight and playmaking midfield in his star’s absence, one player whose club performances over he same timeframe should have earned him more chances was Mark Atkinson.

Well the Gloucester centre got his chance today, but it couldn’t have really gone much worse for him. England’s complete lack of structure and fluidity limited his effectiveness, which was then made even worse playing against a centre pairing of heavyweights Levani Botia and Virimi Vakatawa and a defence coached by Shaun Edwards. Meanwhile in defence, the normally solid defender fund himself falling off a few tackles and being outpaced to the outside by Damian Penaud for a break midway through the first half. Watching him today, it was sadly obvious that he hadn’t played any competitive rugby for a couple of months. And then to make it even worse, a 50/50 pass in his 22 failed to loft over Penaud and allowed the French wing to go over for a try right a England started to get back in the match.

He certainly started showing his quality more in the second half, with a couple of involvements in the build-up to Jonny May’s try, but given that’s against 14 men following Will Skelton’s red card, you can guarantee that it won’t get the recognition that it deserves.

While Atkinson’s form over recent years and his status as the only crash ball 12 available to England right now (with Tuilagi, Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence and Leicester’s Dan Kelly all out injured) should be enough to put him on the plane to Australia, it wouldn’t surprise me if this match is the excuse Eddie Jones will use to leave him out.

Welcome returns

Well there was little to be happy about for England today, fans should be pleased with the returns of Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga. Cokanasiga was playing for England for the first time in just over a year, while Care had become one of the many whose face didn’t fit in Jones’ England, having not played since November 2018, despite having been arguably one of the best 9s in the world in recent years.

And while England lost badly, there were certainly positives to take from their performances. Cokanasiga looked to be troubled a little by an ankle injury sustained midway through the first half, but made a couple of good breaks and finished off Tommy Freeman’s stunning kick counter with a strong carry to the line with a tackler hanging off of him. With his size and power, he provides a different option out wide that could be especially useful with Manu Tuilagi missing the tour, if they can get him coming in off his wing and find some holes to punch him through in midfield.

And as for Care, well his experience and quality certainly helped England bring some shape to their attack. Will he be given the chance to show his quality Down Under? Or was he just brought in as Eddie wanted an experienced 9 in camp while Ben Youngs was still with Leicester. If care isn’t on the plane to Australia, it may be time for a riot.

Upward Trajectories

Upward Trajectories

After a highly impressive victory over Toulouse in the semifinal, many were expecting Leinster to once again win the Champions Cup final last weekend. However, La Rochelle had different ideas, and Arthur Retière’s late try helped secure a 24-21 victory for the Top 14 outfit.

And while many people will be celebrated for the victory, one notable name is really adding to their legacy: Ronan O’Gara. The Munster and Ireland fly half had a legendary playing career which has seen him inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, but his coaching career is taking him to even higher levels. After retiring from playing in 2013, O’Gara joined Racing 92 as a defence coach, who won the Top 14 once during his 4-year spell. From there, he moved to New Zealand to join Scott Robertson’s Crusaders team as a backs coach, and during his spell there, the Crusaders won back-to-back Super Rugby titles. After this success, O’Gara jumped up to the top spot as head coach of La Rochelle. Having been promoted to the Top 14 in 2014, the team had been developing some consistency in making the playoffs, and O’Gara built on that, with the team losing in the finals of both the Top 14 and the Champions Cup (both to Toulouse), before taking the step forward to win the ultimate European prize this season. And while results have generally gone well, it is also the performances and O’Gara’s way of thinking that has drawn praise from players, pundits and fans alike. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being the frontrunner for the Irish job if Andy Farrell were to step away right now, and in fact probably the bigger question is whether he comes back to lead a province beforehand, especially with Munster going through somewhat of a rebuild this summer and also seeing Graham Rowntree come in as head coach.

With O’Gara’s growth and development surely making an international appointment just a matter of “when” rather than “if”, it got me thinking of some other coaches whose success surely has them deserving of—or well on their way to—an international head coaching gig.

Scott Robertson

If I’d been in charge of selecting Steve Hansen’s successor, Robertson would already be the head coach of the All Blacks. While the All Blacks have faltered, the Crusaders have continued their success, and Robertson has been key to it. After the dark days of the end of Todd Blackadder’s reign, which saw the team finish as low as 7ᵗʰ in the 2015 and 2016 Super Rugby seasons, the team won 3 Super Rugby tournaments in a row and were running 3ʳᵈ when the 2020 Super Rugby season was halted by COVID. However, they then won back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa titles, while a 3ʳᵈ-place finish in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman saw them miss out on a spot in the final by just 6 points (which must have hit them hard as they conceded a try at the death in 2 wins, one of which even denied them a bonus point). However, they once again finished in the top 2 of the table in the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season and (at time of writing, ahead of the quarterfinals) will be looking to earn that title over the coming weeks.

Robertson is (in my opinion) one of the top coaches out there, and I’ll be shocked if he is not appointed the All Blacks head coach following the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

 Steve Borthwick

Another player whose quick turnaround of a struggling team to return them to greatness, Steve Borthwick already has experience in an international coaching setup as England forwards coach, before moving to Leicester. Tigers had just finished 11ᵗʰ in back-to-back seasons, but Borthwick immediately turned things around and got the team back into the top half of the table in the 2020/21 season, before topping the table in the 2021/22 season to secure a home semi-final.

Though he has limited experience as a head coach, he has showed that he can get a team united in one vision and turn around a team with high expectations in a tough league, while his experience at Test level both as a player and forwards coach would set him up as a great option for many international teams, perhaps he will even be Eddie Jones’ replacement after RWC2023.

Stuart Lancaster

The former England head coach has the ignominy of leading England to their pool-stage exit at RWC2015, but it is clear that other parties were interfering with that run—highlighted by the Sam Burgess saga. However his move to Leinster, where he is a senior coach, has seen him earn praise across the board, while Leinster have won 4 consecutive Pro14s, a Champions Cup and at time of writing are probably the favourites to win the inaugural URC having topped the combined table.

Such has been his success, it’s time that he gets another shot at Test level, perhaps with a nation that has slightly lower expectations than England (how much would an Italy/Georgia/USA benefit from a coach of his calibre) while teams like Wales and Scotland may also want someone reliable to steady the ship following the disappointing (so far) reigns of Wayne Pivac and Gregor Townsend.

Shaun Edwards

The best defensive coach in World Rugby. The former Wigan rugby league star has become known for his time as defence coach of Wales, the 2009 British & Irish Lions and now France, where he has solidified himself as one of the best coaches in the game. But he also has plenty of head coaching experience, having led Wasps (then London Wasps) from 2005-2011, having started there as a defence/backs coach in 2001. Edwards’ trophy cabinet speaks for itself:

  • Wasps assistant coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 3 Premierships
  • Wasps head coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 1 European Challenge Cup, 1 Premiership
  • Wales assistant coach: 3 Six Nations
  • France assistant coach: 1 Six Nations

Edwards sets a culture within the team, which helps lead to success. If the RFU aren’t looking at him as Eddie Jones’ replacement following the World Cup, it will be a crime!

Who else would you add to this list?

2022 Six Nations: France v England

2022 Six Nations: France v England

And so we reach the finale of Super Saturday and the 2022 Six Nations, as England travelled to Paris to face France. The French knew that a win would secure the Grand Slam and as a climax to the tournament, the crowd were ready to do their part to make the occasion one to remember. And with the Paris crowd roaring on their support, it was Melvyn Jaminet who opened the scoring off the tee following a scrum penalty. France were looking the stronger team with Grégory Alldritt winning some big turnovers, and when Gabin Villière took advantage of Freddie Steward’s inexperience on the wing, the French pulled the England defence from side to side and sent Gaël Fickou over in the right corner. England pulled things back slightly with a penalty from Marcus Smith and were incredibly lucky to see Jack Nowell stay on the pitch after taking Jaminet out in the air, as TMO Marius Jonker shockingly felt that Nowell had been impeded in his chase. Luckily for France, Jaminet was able to continue, and he and Smith each added another penalty, before one last attack from France saw them break down the English right wing to get on the front foot, and after Romain Ntamack was stopped just short by the despairing tackle of Ellis Genge, François Cros managed to get the ball to the line, with Jaminet adding the conversion for an 18-6 lead at the break.

England started the second half on the front foot, and after Joe Marchant broke through in the middle, some quick but calm handling from Courtney Lawes and Jamie George allowed Marcus Smith to put Freddie Steward over in the corner. However the French began to bring on the replacements and up the tempo in attack, which resulted in Aldritt carrying around the fringe and offloading to his captain Dupont to score on the hour. Down by 12 points, the English continued attacking but the closest they could get was with 10 minutes left as Alex Dombrandt was held up after crashing over from close range, and they held on to secure the 25-13 win and a Six Nations Grand Slam.

France

3 seasons of rugby have led to this. With Fabien Galthié taking over leadership of the team following the World Cup, the decision was made to basically drop everyone and start again with a team made up largely of young and inexperienced players. The idea was that by rebooting immediately after the World Cup they could start picking the players who they would expect to be playing in the 2023 World Cup, allowing what will likely be the vast majority of the future World Cup squad to spend 4 years playing together and growing not just as individuals but as a unit.

In starting this so early, it has led to a core team that has spent the last 3 seasons playing together, and allowed new faces like Melvyn Jaminet or returning faces like Jonathan Danty to come into a settled system that could then gratefully benefit from whatever this new player could introduce to the team, with the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup (where each French player was only allowed to feature in 2 matches, resulting in a 2ⁿᵈ/3ʳᵈ string team narrowly losing to England’s 1ˢᵗ team in the final) and the Summer Test series in Australia giving Les Bleus a chance to test their depth and see who was ready to step up into the main squad.

And so, with the World Cup a year and a half away, this team has built into a unit that has capably beaten the All Blacks and now won a Six Nations Grand Slam. With World Champions South Africa coming to Paris in November, that will be the next sign as to how ready they are to compete for the World Cup, but even then they will still have the best part of a year to grow and improve. I called it soon after France named their first squad under Galthié that France were my favourites to win RWC2023. Right now, everything is going to plan.

England

England went for a very interesting tactic in dealing with the French kicking, repeatedly dropping Ellis Genge back along with the usual kick coverage, with the intention to play the ball off to him and give him a 20+ metre run-up into contact.

I’ve seen dynamic carrying props used in a similar way before, with the Melbourne Rebels often fielding long goal-line drop-outs during Super Rugby AU and having Pone Fa’amausili or Cabous Eloff get a 20+ metre run-up charging back at the defensive line with ball in hand, much like we see off a rugby league kickoff.

So it’s nothing new to see a forward drop back to do this off open play kicks, but the issue here is the selection of Ellis Genge. While he is definitely a destructive ball carrier, he already had a big enough (no pun intended) challenge in the scrums facing Uini Atonio—a challenge which was proving too big for him—so should have been keeping his fitness for that. If Eddie Jones was so desperate to have a dynamic carrier doing this, why was he not starting Alex Dombrandt somewhere in the back row?

2022 Six Nations: England v Ireland

2022 Six Nations: England v Ireland

The penultimate weekend of the 2022 Six Nations came to an end with England hosting Ireland at Twickenham. Both teams knew that a win would still keep their title hopes alive (assuming England beat France next week), but things became infinitely harder for England as Charlie Ewels was given a red card after just 82 seconds for a high tackle on James Ryan, Jonathan Sexton kicking the penalty for an early 0-3 lead. And just minutes later Ireland were over for a try, as Dan Sheehan and Josh van der Flier worked the blind side to release James Lowe. Ireland were taking full advantage of the extra space by drawing England in tight and thought they were over for a second try on 12 minutes through Caelan Doris, only for the TMO to find that Maro Itoje had forced a knock-on in the build-up. England grew into the game, but could only muster 2 successful penalties from 3 attempts by Marcus Smith, and as Ireland looked to dictate things in the closing phases of the half, a quick tap penalty from Jamison Gibson-Park sent Hugo Keenan over for a try, though Smith was able to add one more penalty before the break for a 9-15 halftime deficit.

The Irish came hard in the early minutes of the second half, but England’s defence held strong and Irish handling let them down, and it was the English who opened the scoring in the half as Joe Marchant forced a holding on penalty following a great kick chase from Freddie Steward. Ireland’s discipline was quickly disappearing as England dominated the scrums (with Jack Nowell in as a makeshift flanker) and increased in confidence, and Smith levelled the scores with another penalty on the hour mark. Sexton soon had the Irish back ahead by 3 points, and as the final 10 minutes approached it looked like the Irish may be about to score a crucial try as Caelan Doris broke through, only for Ben Youngs to make a good recovering tackle and his offload to the supporting Conor Murray to be a little too far behind him. However the exhaustion of playing a man down for so long was clearly starting to hurt the English and Ireland finally pulled them apart sufficiently for Jack Conan to crash over from short range, Sexton’s conversion stretching the lead to 10 points with 6 minutes remaining. The English resistance had been broken and the Irish secured the bonus point through Finlay Bealham’s first Six Nations try. Witht he match secured, Sexton was removed from what will be his last Test at Twickenham—having announced his intention to retire after the World Cup—and he watched on from the sidelines as his side held out one last England attack to keep their title hopes alive with a 15-32 victory.

England

While there were a number of heroic England performances following Charlie Ewels’ decision that he didn’t want to play rugby today, one man who deserves so much praise is Ellis Genge.

Known more for his play in the loose than in the set piece, the baby rhinoceros found himself packing down against arguably the world’s best tighthead in Tadhg Furlong, and rather than the reassuring bulk of Courtney Lawes pushing from blind side flanker, he instead had Jack Nowell. And yet somehow he not only held his own in the scrum, but actually dominated Furlong, winning countless penalties that allowed England to clear their lines, settle, get into Irish territory and kick points of their own.

While he has continued to make his name with his play in the loose, Genge has quietly matured into a solid all-round player. With this showing against Furlong, he has just sent out a message to opposition tightheads. Next week he will likely come up against the walking talking mountain Uini Atonio. Can he back up this performance with another strong day at the scrum? Time will tell…

Ireland

It’s a good job that the English fell away at the end of this match, as this was starting to look like we could be watching a very embarrassing day for Ireland. As great as England defended, the Irish should have been taking full advantage of their numerical advantage.

Instead, bar a few moments, the Irish either panicked and tried to score too quickly (resulting in errors) or took the pressure off England too much, allowing them to dictate the game for large portions. And as they struggled to finish off their chances, they began to panic and lose their discipline, with moments like their lineout being penalised for obstruction—ironically something Peter O’Mahony had asked the referee to watch out for from England earlier in the game.

At the same time, the scrum was pretty much a guaranteed penalty for England as Tadhg Furlong was second-best to Ellis Genge, and then even the breakdown started becoming a mess for them as player like Joe Marchant made up for their numerical disadvantage and the loss of Tom Curry to injury.

That’s 2 games in a row now that Ireland have found themselves struggling despite a numerical advantage. If they want to be considered one of the very best teams in the world, they need to become more clinical, urgently.