2023 Six Nations: Ireland v England

2023 Six Nations: Ireland v England

The 2023 Six Nations came to an end on St Patrick’s weekend in Dublin as Ireland looked to complete just a third Six Nations Grand Slam (their fourth in any version of the tournament) against an England team who would be hoping for a reaction after being embarrassed at home by France last weekend.

Jonathan Sexton was playing in his last Six Nations match and would surely be looking to go out on a high, but it was his opposite number Owen Farrell who opened the scoring with a penalty, as Ireland struggled to deal with England’s early defensive pressure. However Ireland soon grew into the game, and Sexton almost had the Six Nations points record to himself with a 5m quick tap penalty, only to be held up over the line. The missed opportunity proved costly, as England’s next possession around the Irish 22 saw Farrell kick another penalty. Sexton finally made the Six Nations points record his own with a penalty as the first quarter came to an end, getting a standing ovation from the crowd at the Aviva Stadium. As the game reached the half hour, Ireland were beginning to find half-gaps, and when Josh van der Flier peeled off the back of a maul just inside the English 22, his pass back inside sent Dan Sheehan through the gap his run had created for the opening try of the game, Sexton adding the extras. And then came the body blow for England with the clock in the red, as Freddie Steward collided with Hugo Keenan following a knock-on by Mack Hansen, and Jaco Peyper sent him off for turning in and making contact with Keenan’s head—leading to the irish fullback failing a HIA. England however managed to hold out the resultant Irish attack and make it into the break just 10-6 down.

A man down, England looked to rely on territory and the set piece to keep in the game, and cut the Irish lead to just a point with half hour remaining after Ellis Genge got the better of Tadhg Furlong at the scrum. Ireland continued to put the pressure on, though, bringing on Tom O’Toole to secure the scrum and Jack Conan in place of Peter O’Mahony to add an extra carrier, and after Anthony Watson was forced to take the ball back over his own line on the hour after collecting Sexton’s cross-kick, Ireland stretched the defence with a couple of phases to the posts before hitting back to the blind side to send Robbie Henshaw over. And the win looked likely with 12 minutes remaining as Dan Sheehan’s carry out wide brought Ireland into the 22, and after resetting, Mack Hansen released Jack Conan to make the yards up to the 5m line before offloading to Sheehan for the finish in the corner. England hit back quickly with a try for Jamie George from a driving maul after Jack Conan was pinged for offside at the breakdown, while Sexton left the pitch in some pain but under his own steam to a hero’s applause after getting caught at the bottom of the maul. But any hopes of a late comeback victory for England were brought to an end as Jack Willis was sent to the bin for taking Ross Byrne beyond the horizontal, while Rob Herrin peeled off the resultant lineout maul to go over in the corner for a 29-16 victory and an historic Grand Slam.

Ireland

While I’m sure Ireland would have preferred a much simpler match, this was probably the perfect situation for them. This is a team who are notoriously famous for having peaked too soon, and I’m sure that after their recent victories over New Zealand, South Africa and France, and with their ranking as #1 in the world, people are just waiting for them to collapse at another World Cup.

So while some may see this as the first sign, I think that Andy Farrell will use this as a timely wake-up call. But more than that, it is a reminder that they cannot let the occasion get the better of them and must remain focused for every game, while also a timely reminder not to underestimate a team, no matter how bad their recent performances have been, and a reminder of just how hard a team can fight when they lose a man to a red card. But further to that, Keenan’s failed HIA gave Jimmy O’Brien some crucial experience in a major match, while Ryan Baird was also forced to step up after being given the number 4 shirt with both Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson missing through injury.

But at the end of the day, a win is a win, and a Grand Slam just months out from a World Cup will give them so much belief that 202 could finally be the year that they break their World Cup curse.

England

Whether it was the return of  Owen Farrell at 10 and Manu Tuilagi at 12, or just a number of players realising that last week had left them 1 poor performance away from the end of their Test careers, but this English performance was unrecognisable from last week.

Players were getting up in the Irish faces, and at the breakdown they weren’t just making it a contest, they were actually winning on the balance of play. Meanwhile in attack, there appeared more intent in the carries, and there was much more structure.

To me, part of this is likely a boot up the proverbial buttocks after last week forcing a response, but I also think that the 10 and 12 selections have an impact. Owen Farrell is a leader, and leads by example, controlling the attack and being physical in defence. Seeing your captain and leader doing this will push you to do the same, while Ellis Genge—removed from the burden of captaincy—was able to focus on his own game and looked much more dangerous, while with extra support from his his pack, Jack Willis was able to have one of his best performances in an England shirt.

But I can’t help think that Tuilagi has an impact too. While Ollie Lawrence has done a fie job at 12 for England, he is not as big as Manu, in the same way that Yoram Moefana was not able to completely replace Jonathan Danty in the early rounds of the tournament, and I would argue that Lawrence’s long-term England future may be at  rather than 12, especially as a new generation of physical 12s arrives in Dan Kelly and Seb Atkinson. Tuilagi remains an incredible talent and the only real question marks are around his durability. for a team rebuilding like England are right now, a player of his ability and experience still has a crucial part to play. Will it be enough to see him on the plane to France…?


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2023 Six Nations: England v France

2023 Six Nations: England v France

Twickenham played host to the 2023 edition of Le Crunch, as Steve Borthwick’s England played their first match against a team expected to be in contention for the Rugby World Cup later this year. Les Bleus were welcoming back a few regulars to their 2 following injury, while the news from the England camp was largely focused on Marcus Smith being given the 10 shirt, with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench.

And it was the visitors who got the better start, Thibaud Flament’s line break releasing Ethan Dumortier, who sent Thomas Ramos over in the corner, who also kicked the conversion and a penalty just minutes later for an early 10 point lead. After an awful first 10 minutes, England grew into the game and found some parity, and turned down a kickable penalty on 19 minutes to go to the corner, only for a poor maul to break apart and allow the defence a chance to get in and steal the ball on the floor. And Les Bleus made them pay 5 minutes later as a 50-22 from Antoine Dupont put them within 10m of the line, and a few phases of pressure saw Flament crash over for the try. A penalty allowed England a quick chance to respond, but after again going to the corner, they were penalised for obstruction as they set the maul. England finally chose to go for the posts with their next penalty just after the half hour, and Marcus Smith finally got them on the scoreboard, only for Ramos to immediately counter with a kick of his own. And when the French scrum got the wheel on at the end of the half, a dominant carry off the base from Grégory Alldritt allowed him to send Charles Ollivon over for the try, Ramos maintaining his 100% record off the tee for a 3-27 lead.

Though far from perfect, England were competitive at the start of the second half and thought they had a try after 5 minutes as Marcus Smith’s crosskick evaded Ramos, only for the diving Max Malins to fail to collect in goal. England went to the bench early, with ALex Mitchell and Owen Farrell coming on for Jack van Poortvliet and henry Slade, and it had an immediate impact as the tempo increased from the hosts, which resulted in Freddie Steward crashing over for a much-needed try. But France soon recovered from the shock, and when Dupont chipped into the England 22 from the back of a ruck, Romain Ntamack beat Steward to the ball and tapped back to the onrushing Flament for his second try of the match. And when France broke again and kicked downfield, forcing Marcus Smith to set up the ruck on his own line, Charles Ollivon had the presence of mind to realise that the ball was free over the line and he came through to dot the ball down for another try. England were struck another blow in the final 20 minutes as Ollie Lawrence went off injured, and with all the replacement backs already on, Alex Dombrandt was forced to fill in at centre, which France took advantage of entering the final ten minutes, Fickou’s cross-kick evading the Harlequin and finding Damian Penaud, who had been quiet by his standards but did not hesitate in cantering 60 meters untouched for another try, while he was celebrating another just minutes later as they caught England far too narrow and beat the bliting Anthony Watson to send the wing over in the corner, Ramos finally losing his 100% kicking record for the game. England looked to try and end a humiliating day on a minor positive, but Steward found himself held up over the line in the corner, leaving them left to reflect on a chastening 10-53 loss, their largest ever home defeat.

England

This was a major reality check for England. After years of stagnation under Eddie Jones, it was never going to be easy for Steve Borthwick to turn things around in time for the World Cup. It must be remembered, England came into this tournament basically a step or 2 above Wales—mainly due to the depth they have courtesy of the Premiership compared to the Welsh—while France are one of the favourites for the World Cup. And that gap in quality really showed.

One of the stars of the Premiership, Alex Dombrandt has struggled to replicate his performances on the Test stage, and looked especially poor in this game, with a number of handling errors and often going to ground too early, putting his team under pressure. 2 stupid early penalties from Lewis Ludlam helped remind me why I have never considered him a Test-level back row, while players like Maro Itoje and Jamie George continue to not reach their Saracens level of performances with a rose on their breast instead. Jack van Poortvliet struggled to get anything going and provide quick ball, while his replacement Alex Mitchell impressed for about  minutes before putting in a torrid display that will surely see Harry Randall sending the England coaches a reminder that he’s available.

And as the new attacking gameplan is still settling in with a change at 10, the last thing you want is a game against a Shaun Edwards defence, especially with Jonathan Danty’s return helping solidify the midfield. Too rare were the times that England were able to get on the front foot, and it left Smith with little to work with. But what was really worrying was just how easy the French found it to turn the English over… it honestly felt like men against boys at times watching Danty, Ollivon, Flament and Aldritt take control of the game.

And the bad news for England: next week they face an Irish side likely playing for the Grand Slam. It’s hard to imagine that things will get any easier for English fans this month…

France

If you want to highlight the success of Fabien Galthié’s decision to reset the squad at the start of the cycle and build from day 1 with the World Cup in line, look no further than Thibaut Flament.

With the dynamism of a back row but the physicality of a lock, Flament is one of those incredible locks on the level of Tadhg Beirne who are so hard to account for due to their unique blend of skills. Over the last few seasons we have seen him embedded into the squad, with 9 appearances last year but only 3 starts (against Argentina and twice against Japan). Now 25 years old and with another season of top flight rugby under his belt, this was his sixth start of the season for Les Bleus. And now that he has secured himself as a starter, it is allowing him to really carve out a role in this team.

Previously, his dynamism was used to hurt a tiring opposition, much like we have seen from players like Sipili Falatea and Matthieu Jalibert. However now that he has become a starter, he has actually added a new dimension to the French attack. Rather than just being another big carrier like his partner Paul Willemse, his dynamism allows himself to be used slightly wider where the defence is less congested and the gaps between defenders is bigger. By then targeting the gap, he can look to use his pace and power to break through, and even if the defense does tackle him, he will have generally managed to get through the tackle, where he can then look to offload to his support men, creating the linebreak that his team will so often convert into 5/7 points.

And the scary thing is that he will likely just get better over the next few years. Expect to him becoming a regular in my Team of the Tournament articles.


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2023 Six Nations: Wales v England

2023 Six Nations: Wales v England

The game is on! After a dramatic 2 weeks that saw the game at risk from a player strike, the Principality Stadium played host to a Wales v England match that saw both teams continue their last-minute rebuild ahead of the World Cup. And in a match that clearly highlighted how both teams are still growing, it was clear that England are a step or two ahead of Wales on their process, as they backed up an early Owen Farrell penalty with a great try on 1 minutes. A strong carry off from Ollie Lawrence off the back of a scrum took the English into the Welsh 22, and a quick recycle allowed them to spread the ball further the same way to send Anthony Watson over in the corner. A penalty at the restart gifted Leigh Halfpenny with a simple penalty to cut the deficit, but as the clock ticked into and through the second corner, neither could create anything of real note, which resulted in the 3-8 scoreline remaining to the break.

Wales had barely threatened in the first half but were on the scoresheet almost immediately after the break, with a slow attack down the line giving Louis Rees-Zammit the chance to insert himself in the line and intercept Max Malins’ pass to canter in from halfway, gifting Halfpenny the simplest of conversions to put Wales ahead. However England immediately hit back, and when a penalty gave them easy access to the Welsh 22, they went through the phases before Kyle Sinckler forced his way over the line, with referee Mathieu Raynal quick to award the try. The game remained close, with neither side able to make any further headway, though as the game reached the final 10 minutes England remained in the ascendency. And they had a chance to seal the game going into the final 10 minutes, only for Henry Slade to put boot to ball with a 3v2 on the edge of the Welsh 22. However, just minutes later they created another opportunity, and when Slade was stopped just short of the Welsh try line, the ball was quickly recycled to put Lawrence over in the corner to secure a 10-20 victory.

Wales

Oh boy Warren, you have a big job on your hand. Granted, the preparations for this match were heavily impacted by contract issues with the WRU, but even so, the reason this game was close had more to do with them facing another team at early stages of a rebuild than Wales doing much of note.

Owen Williams’ return from the wilderness saw him start at 10 as Warren Gatland looks at his options beyond Dan Biggar and the often-injured Gareth Anscombe, and despite having played a big part in the Ospreys’ resurgence this year, he looked completely out of his depth running a back line at Test level, not that things drastically improved with the arrival of Dan Biggar.

In Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit, Wales have 2 top quality attacking wings, and yet they are wasted when Wales play like they did today. There were too many forward carries off 9 or 10—including multiple occasions when spreading the ball down the back line would have created an overlap—which are always easier for the defence to deal with, while also hampers Wales even more as they lack the big carriers they need to consistently force their way over the gain line, even more so considering Jac Morgan was left out of the 23! And when they weren’t doing this, they were kicking the ball, often not in a way that allowed their wings to compete, and also far too often towards Freddie Steward, despite his aerial prowess already being well-known.

Players like Adams and Rees-Zammit have the ability to make something from nothing, but not on a regular basis. To give them a real chance, they need to get the ball in space, and preferably with a gap ahead of them for them to attack. Wales need to find a way to create this space quickly, or the Wooden Spoon may not be their biggest tournament disappointment in 2023 given the teams they have to face in their World Cup pool.

England

Is anyone else getting worried about Owen Farrell’s goal kicking?

The England captain used to be one of the most reliable goal kickers in Test rugby, so reliable that you would bet on him to nail anything within his range between the 5m lines, with a decent accuracy from wider out. However recently, he is missing kicks that you would expect any Test-level kicker to be nailing, and is currently kicking at less than 50% in this year’s tournament.

While England obviously have other areas that they need to improve right now if they want to be pushing for the latter stages of the World Cup, when you get to the later stages, you need a kicker who you can rely on to keep the scoreboard ticking over against top defences and to ignore the pressure to kick the match-winner late on. Think Jonny Wilkinson throughout 2003, or Leon MacDonald fresh from his whitebait fishing, or conversely the agony of Leigh Halfpenny’s missed kick in 2007.

England missed an opportunity when pairing Farrell and Marcus Smith in midfield to let Farrell focus on the captaincy and give Smith the kicking tee, as right now the man who appears to be the next up should Farrell get injured has minimal experience kicking at Test level—a very different type of crowd to what you see at club level. But now, with England reverting to a single playmaker system and Farrell taking most of the minutes, that opportunity seems to be gone.

England need to hope that this doesn’t cost them in France later this year.


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2023 Six Nations: England v Italy

2023 Six Nations: England v Italy

England’s reshaping under Steve Borthwick continued on Sunday as they hosted Italy. The Azzurri were unfortunate to come away with just a losing bonus point against France last weekend and would surely have been targeting this match as a chance to finally beat the only Six Nations opponent who they have never defeated.

England came in with a new look to their midfield—Owen Farrell moving to 10 with Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade at centre—and the new midfield almost paid dividends early on, as Edoardo Padovani and Tommaso Allan both had to cover grubbers into the Italian in-goal. However, a questionable breakdown penalty after 2 minutes allowed the hosts to kick to the corner, and the England maul spun to send Jack Willis over for the opening try. Italy were trying their hardest to compete, but were being officiated on a different level to the hosts, who benefitted by once again going to the corner, and a series of penalties led to Lorenzo Cannone being sent to the bin, with England soon taking advantage of the extra man as Ollie Chessum crashed over from a lovely disguised pass by Ellis Genge. And as the half reached the final 5 minutes, Padovani had to be aware as Farrell put a grubber in behind with Jamie George chasing. England thought they had the third try moments later, Max Malins’ deception and footwork putting him through the line and feeding the supporting Jack van Poortvliet, only for the play to be called back for an obstruction. However England had the penalty advantage and with the Italian pck still down to 7, they were unable to stop the maul sending Jamie George over, Farrell converting for a 9-0 halftime lead.

The second half started much more positively for the Azzurri, and after some clever offloading released Ange Capuozzo deep into the 22, Italy went through the phases before sending Marco Riccioni over for the try. However the English pack hit back and another kick to the corner saw Simone Ferrari—only just on for Riccioni—collapse the maul for a penalty try (giving England the bonus point) and a yellow card. Both sides continued to fight hard, but as the Italian replacements came on and they returned to 15 men, they began to look more dangerous than at any point in the game, and it soon resulted in a break for Juan Ignacio Brex, which Alessandro Fusco finished just a minute after entering the game. However the English hit back after being gifted a scrum penalty (a recurring theme of the match), they managed to work the space to send Henry Arundell over in the corner to secure a 31-14 victory, a first win of the Steve Borthwick era.

England

Steve Borthwick made a big call this week with the decision to change from a 10/12 playmaker axis to a more traditional midfield setup, but while it is early days, it looks to have had a marked effect already.

Though maybe not the out and out crash ball 12 that Dan Kelly (rumoured to have been the favourite for the 12 shirt ahead of the tournament before his injury), the selection of Ollie Lawrence at 12 gave England the physical impact that they had been missing in midfield, and this was then helping England to vary up the play more as it allowed the pack to take the ball forward already on the front foot, which in turn allowed the halfbacks to control the game. Meanwhile in defence, they looked much more secure while not having to cover for Smith.

While a second playmaker can be a big boon, it cannot come at the expense of front-foot ball, which this midfield provides in a way that last week’s did not, while Henry Slade’s experience as a 10 earlier in his career means that England are not fully without a second playmaker.

With only a handful of matches until the World Cup, don’t be shocked to see England stick with this formation and look to build off it over the coming weeks.

Italy

This was a disappointing game for Italy. Their stronger scrum was largely neutralised by some questionable refereeing interpretations from James Doleman, their maul defence had a nightmare against the England pack, while the midfield also struggled to get parity with the power.

Moreover, their ability to defend was severely impacted by England’s frequent kicking into the corners. While the kicks were generally well dealt with, especially by Edoardo Padovani, the need to cover the ball in behind meant that Italy were unable to fully commit their wings to the defensive line, which meant that the rest of the defence had to spread themselves out wider to cover the pitch, which weakened their ability to deal with Ollie Lawrence’s charges through midfield.

However, they kept at it and when they managed to get a foothold in the game, they caused England some real problems. While they will be disappointed, this is still a much better scoreline than they often leave Twickenham with, while they also saw a promising cameo off the bench from Jake Polledri as he returns from injury.

After last week’s heartbreak, this will feel disappointing. But that in itself should be a sign of just how well Italy are growing as a team. This World Cup may have come a little too early for them, but watch out for this team in the next cycle.


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2023 Six Nations: England v Scotland

2023 Six Nations: England v Scotland

We all love the Six Nations for its local rivalries, and we weren’t left to wait long for the clash of the Auld enemies as England hosted Scotland at Twickenham. New head coach Steve Borthwick would have been hoping that his first match in charge saw his team get back to winning ways after losing 3 and drawing 1 of their last 5 matches against Gregor Townsend’s Scotland.

And after almost 15 minutes of physical rugby, it was Scotland who took the lead as Sione Tuipulotu’s grubber sat up in the in-goal for Huw Jones to score the opening try after his break moved Scotland up to the English line, however England soon hit back and scored a try of their own when, following a poor kick under pressure from Finn Russell brought them into the Scottish 22, a period of 14 phases ended with Max Malins grounding Marcus Smith’s crosskick, though Farrell’s missed conversion from out wide left the visitors ahead. And that lead was soon extended as Duhan van der Merwe broke through a gap in the English kick chase and backed himself to step 2 tacklers and hold off Alex Dombrandt on his way to the line. But the hosts again found the answer, with some great attacking lines eventually creating the space to spread the ball wide and send Max Malins over, and though Farrell missed the conversion, he finally got off the mark with a penalty on the stroke of half time for a 13-12 lead.

England started taking control after the break, and when a brilliant crash ball from Dombrandt brought England up to the Scottish try line, they remained patient before sending Ellis Genge over for try number 3. Scotland found a answer though in an odd fashion, a mishandle on the floor from Ben White caused him to spin unexpectedly to pick up the ball, which allowed him to unknowingly evade the onrushing Ben Curry, before taking advantage of the gap this left to snipe over. England were soon back on the attack, but Marcus Smith found himself well handled by Tuipulotu as he tried to create something from a 2v2 close to the ry line, resulting in him being bundled into touch. As the replacements started to come on around the hour mark, Matt Fagerson was pinged for hands in the ruck, allowing Farrell t extend the lead to 4 points with just over 5 minutes left, but after a Russell crosskick just eluded Kyle Steyn, the fly half kicked a penalty of his own to make it 23-22. And with 7 minutes left, a break from Steyn pulled too many of the England defence over to his side, and a couple of quick Scottish passes allowed Duhan van der Merwe to step inside Marcus Smith and carry Malins over the line as he reached out to score the bonus point try, with Russell kicking the conversion to secure a 23-29 victory and retain the Calcutta Cup for another year.

England

After years of seeing Eddie Jones sucke the life out of English rugby, some of the play today brought real joy to my heart.

With Nick Evans now in charge of the attack, inexperienced players like Chessum, Dombrandt and Hassell-Collins carried with the confidence of veterans, players were not just looking for gaps between defenders, but hitting them with conviction and on fantastic lines. It’s no surprise to me that Marcus Smith looked more comfortable than ever in the attacking game.

Was it all perfect? Of course not. There were certainly offloads that didn’t go to hand, players left isolated or other such errors, but that is to be expected given this is the first match in a new attacking system, with some new players, and most likely some amendments made due to the number of injuries picked up in recent weeks. I would also argue that Ben Youngs appeared to be choosing the chip over the ruck far too often when continuing to go through the phases would have been a better decision.

The important thing here is that England have immediately looked much more dangerous with ball in hand and showing that they can score tries. And that immediately makes them more dangerous.

Scotland

This really was a classic Finn Russell match. For so much of the game, it looked like England would come away with the win, and the stand-off would have deserved his fair share of blame, as he often kept hold of the ball just a little too long, allowing himself to either be tackled in possession or as he was getting his kick away, with a number of England’s best chances in the first half coming from kicks that had fallen short in midfield as he was pressured in the kick.

But as the game went on, his ability to spread the ball around proved crucial, and the way that he would put the ball out in front of the players to run onto, allowing the wings to run riot down the touchlines and encouraging line breaks.

He truly is a mercurial talent, and while the risks he takes won’t always pay off, he doesn’t let his head drop and continues to find the gaps an exploit them. And by doing so, he keeps Scotland as an attacking threat right til the very end.


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Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

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

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

England

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

France

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

Ireland

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

Italy

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

Scotland

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

Wales

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


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Borthwick’s Bolters

Borthwick’s Bolters

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

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

Ollie Lawrence

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

Joe Marler

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

George McGuigan

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

George Ford

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

 Ollie Hassell-Collins & Cadan Murley

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

Alex Dombrandt

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

Anthony Watson

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


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Next Man Up

Next Man Up

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

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

The Missed Opportunities

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

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

Steve Borthwick

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

Scott Robertson

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

Mark McCall

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

Rob Baxter

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

Richard Cockerill

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

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


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

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

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

Eddie’s England

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

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

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

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

Dominant

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

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

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


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v New Zealand

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v New Zealand

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

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

Learning opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with the big boys

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

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

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

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


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