RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool D

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool D

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

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


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Who are you looking out for during the tournament? And so we make it to Pool D:

Australia

Samu Kerevi may have 20+ caps to his name already, but I would argue that he has never really made a name for himself until this season. Though the Reds failed to make the playoffs this season, Kerevi finished in the top 10 for carries (220 – 1st), clean breaks (26 – 5th), defenders beaten (71 – 2nd) and offloads (26 – 2nd). He has carried that form into the Rugby Championship and has surely secured himself a spot in the Wallabies midfield.

Wales

The Wales squad has been relatively settled in recent years, allowing all the players to establish themselves, but for this I have gone for Josh Navidi. Having competed for minutes with Martyn Williams and Sam Warburton, he is a great openside flanker, who is at home anywhere in the back row – giving Warren Gatland more options with Taulupe Faletau out injured. Dangerous at the breakdown, he is also well accomplished at holding a player up to turn the ball over with a maul and his skills with ball in hand are massively underrated.

Georgia

Vasil Lobzhanidze was going to be my pick here, until I got the chance to watch Georgia’s warm-up matches against Scotland. While watching this, fly half Tedo Abzhandadze caught my eye and I was shocked to find that he was already a regular starter for the senior side despite being just 20 years old. Captain of the Georgian U20s team that beat Scotland and Fiji in the most recent World Rugby U20s Championship, the young 10 showed his range of skills at Murrayfield and controlled the game well. Now the question will be how he holds up in a major senior international tournament.

Fiji

I was going to write about rugby league convert Semi Radradra initially, but when push came to shove I couldn’t ignore Viliame Mata. The Edinburgh number 8 was named Players’ Player of the Year at the end of season Pro14 awards. Part of the Fiji 7s squad that won Gold at Rio 2016, he is an incredible danger in the loose with his strong running and ridiculous offloads. The thought of him, Semi Kunatani and Leone Nakarawa in the pack together is mouth-watering!

Uruguay

Probably one of the hardest to pick due to my own unfamiliarity with the Uruguayans. While I was tempted to go for Gastón Mieres, one of the Uruguayans making a name for themselves in Major League Rugby, I found myself instead picking Felipe Berchesi. Playing for Dax, who were just relegated from Pro D2, he is used to a decent level of rugby, while he has over 30 caps for Uruguay including 3 starts at RWC2015 and also featured at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens.


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

Eyes On: Scotland v Georgia – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Scotland v Georgia – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After making history by being the first Tier 1 Nation to play in Tbilisi last weekend, Scotland returned to Murrayfield to take on Georgia again in their final warm-up match ahead of the World Cup. After each team knocked on with the line at their mercy, Scotland took the lead through tries from Ali Price and Blair Kinghorn, while 3 penalties from young fly half Tedo Abzhandadze kept the Lelos just 1 point behind at half time. A try from Sam Johnson extended the lead from Scotland, who ran away with it in the final 15 minutes with tries through Darcy Graham, George Horne and Pete Horne, for a final score of 36-9.

 

Scotland

Playing this close to the World Cup is risky and it may have backfired for Scotland on Friday night. The Scots had a number of players leave the pitch early. Blair Kinghorn had started the match well but left the pitch soon after his try with a head injury and did not return. Richie Gray was removed at half time in his first appearance during these warm-ups as a precaution following a tight hamstring. Jamie Ritchie came off with a facial injury early in the second half and is now at risk of missing the tournament (Magnus Bradbury will travel to Japan with the squad in case Ritchie has to pull out). Ben Toolis, who had come on for Gray, only lasted 25 minutes before being removed for a head injury of his own.

While it is obviously not ideal for so many players to suffer injuries (especially head injuries) this close to the tournament, this may have actually given the team some good experience of coping with a limited squad. With the Horne Brothers and Chris Harris covering the backs on the bench, it looks like the back 3 were expected to play the full 80 minutes, but they reacted well to losing Kinghorn by moving Tommy Seymour to 15 and introducing Chris Harris on the wing. With Toolis an Bradbury having already come on, there was no more back row/lock cover on the bench when Toolis had to be removed, so George Turner was moved to cover in the back row and Grant Stewart came on at hooker.

With only 8 spots on the bench and 31 places in a World Cup squad, it is always going to be hard to effectively cover every position. As such, having players with the intangibles to cover multiple positions will be invaluable to Scotland as the matches start to come thick and fast.

Georgia

While they did not play poorly last week, this performance from Georgia was miles better. The Lelos weren’t just there to make up the numbers, they were genuinely in the game until the final 15 minutes. With the game being much more even, it allowed some of their players to really shine.

At just 20 years old, Tedo Abzhandadze appears to have established himself as the starter and looks like he will be a star for the next few cycles. In this match, the young fly half gave the full repertoire: controlling his back line well, making plays with his feet and kicking well for territory, while he also had a relatively good day off the boot, hitting 3 of his 4 kicks. Sticking with the backs and Soso Matiashvili had a great game. The fullback ran for 89 metres (the next closest was Darcy Graham’s 57m) and beat 11 defenders (nobody else beat more than 5).

For so long, the Georgians have just been talked about in terms of their pack. While the pack is obviously still a big weapon, it is great to see the team getting some stars in the back line to take them to a new level. Australia, Wales and Fiji will have a fight on their hands for the top 3 spots in Pool D.


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Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

It was a historic day on Saturday as Tbilisi’s Dinamo Arena hosted Georgia’s first home match against a Tier 1 nation. Scotland put out a strong team and it paid dividends, as tries from Ben Toolis and Rory Hutchinson helped to open up a 3-23 halftime lead. In the second half, a second for Hutchinson and tries for Darcy Graham and Scott Cummings confirmed the 10-44 victory, with Karlen Asieshvili’s try giving the home fans something to cheer.

Georgia

With Georgia not often playing against Tier 1 opposition on televised channels, it’s not very often that I get to watch them play outside of the World Cups. However, from what I have seen in recent seasons, the calls for them to replace Italy in the Six Nations are ridiculous.

In this game, Finn Russell and the Scottish team played well, but it was made easy for them as the Georgians struggled to cope with the quality of rugby they were forced to defend against. It was far too easy for Scotland to cut them apart – it felt like a highly physical training game too often. When they did manage to stop the Scots cutting them apart, it generally ended with them gifting Scotland points or territory through a penalty. Meanwhile, too many of their attacks ended in costly handling errors. The gulf in class was obvious and something that I also noticed when they played Italy during the 2018 November Tests.

This is not a critique of Georgia, more just a note that replacing Italy with them will not help anyone in the long run. There was plenty of good to see from the team: they kept going to the end, their catch and drive lineouts were a fantastic weapon and there is some quality coming trough the age groups, helped by incredible facilities. More than that, the crowd were amazing and the atmosphere seemed incredible when I was watching on TV. Georgia needs to be facing – and hosting – Tier 1 nations far more often. Directly replacing Italy in the Six Nations is not the answer, but they have outgrown the tournament they are in and something needs to be done to ensure Georgia is playing against better nations in order to continue improving.

Scotland

Georgia have become famous over the years for the strength of their pack. So many of the players who have made it into one of the top European leagues have been forwards. When you play against Georgia, you know that things will be tough in the scrum.

I make that point, so that when I say Scotland held their own in the scrums in this match, that achievement gets the recognition it deserves. Willem Nel has always been known as a good scrummager, but Allan Dell has improved so much over the recent years to make the number 1 shirt his own. Perhaps even more impressive is that their replacements Zander Fagerson and Jamie Bhatti also managed to keep the balance at the set piece.

Earlier that day, Ireland’s pack were in devastating form against Wales. With Ireland and Scotland likely facing off for the top spot in their pool, being able to nullify the Irish scrum could be a key factor in that match.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, for this I will only be focusing on the Scots for 2 reasons: 1. I don’t know enough about the Georgians to know where they have depth, and 2. By the time I post this, they will have already announced their squad!

Rory Hutchinson‘s rise at Northampton this year was already a great story, but I thought an international call-up was too soon. He has looked better with each appearance however and with 2 extremely well-taken tries on his first start, I think that he has put himself in a great position to force his way in as a bolter. I also thought that another great all-round performance from Darcy Graham, including dotting down Finn Russell’s grubber for a try, will have been enough to secure his seat on the plane.

Huw Jones is a quality player and a few years back I considered him one of the best 13s in international rugby, but the centre position suddenly looks extremely deep and he struggled to make an impact after replacing Sam Johnson in this game. I also think that Matt Fagerson will have been disappointed to be removed as he has had very little time on the pitch to prove himself worthy of a spot in the squad.


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Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

After last weekend’s early start for a number of teams, the Autumn Internationals kicked off in full force this weekend. The match between England and New Zealand that people wanted years ago finally took place and, despite England’s struggles in 2018, the match went right down to the final minutes. Wales finally ended years of hurt with a low-scoring win over Australia, while the USA got their first win over Samoa to continue their record of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018, though that will likely come to an end soon as they face Ireland in a few weeks.

The Week 2 results were:

  • Brazil 3-35 Maori All Blacks
  • France 26-29 South Africa
  • Ireland 28-17 Argentina
  • USA 30-29 Samoa
  • Wales 9-6 Australia
  • England 15-16 New Zealand
  • French Barbarians 38-49 Tonga
  • Scotland 54-17 Fiji
  • Italy 28-17 Georgia

England

The first 35 minutes against New Zealand was probably the best I have seen England play all season. Players were tackling as if their lives depended on it and if someone missed a tackle, there was someone else there to put the carrier down. The rucks were being hit with a desire to get the ball back on the English side and the backs were pinning the All Blacks back with their tactical kicking. And that maul for Dylan Hartley’s try was like porn for a former prop like me!

Unfortunately, the team could not keep it up for the full 80 minutes and they struggled to have the same impact in the second half. While it could be said that England were handed the match against South Africa by Malcolm Marx’s throwing, this time it was England throwing he game away in the second half as Jamie George managed to connect on only 5 of his 10 throws, with a number of them being pilfered by Brodie Retallick. While the throws were by no means perfect as they did not seem to be hitting the golden “double top” (top of the throw, top of the jump), I do not want to put the blame fully on George as the lineouts were continually called to Maro Itoje (I got the feeling he was the one calling the lineout but am not certain) despite Retallick covering him at the set piece.

If England are to win the tight games, they need to make sure their set piece is flawless on their own ball.

New Zealand

Damian McKenzie was wonderful on Saturday. While I don’t rate him as an international fly half, he is a fantastic attacking fullback. Despite his small stature, he popped straight back up after numerous big hits from Sam Underhill and the rest of the England back row, while his footwork, vision, pace and ability to pick an attacking line played such a big part in New Zealand’s resurgence. He may not be the best yet under the high ball, but this is an area of his game that he can develop. If he’s given the number 15 shirt on a regular basis over the next year, he could be one of the best at his position in the World Cup.


Wales

Alan Wyn Jones was a lucky man on Saturday, as he probably should have seen a red card for leading with a forearm into Bernard Foley. While the incident didn’t look much, leading with the forearm is considered a red card offence. Alafoti Fa’osiliva received a red card for when playing for Worcester against Gloucester a few years ago and just the night before this match, USA’s Megan Rom was shown red for the same offence, which I would argue was even softer as she appeared to initially attempt to hand the player off in the shoulder – something Jones didn’t. Meanwhile in the Pro14, both Uzair Cassiem and Kieron Fonotia have both been banned this season for similar offences. All we ask for in the rugby community is consistency, and going by previous examples, the Ospreys lock should have been taking an early bath, but not even a penalty was given.

Australia

Jones wasn’t the only player who probably got lucky not to be penalised in this game, as Samu Kerevi also escaped punishment for a collision with Leigh Halfpenny that saw the fullback ft with concussion. This to me is a really difficult one and even after a couple of days thinking about it and discussing with a few friends, I still can’t decide what the outcome should have been.

Kerevi does leave the ground in an attempt to charge down the kick, which is the only reason I can imagine Ben O’Keeffe was willing to call it a “rugby incident” and play on – similar to Andrew Conway’s attempted charge down of Gareth Steenson’s conversion in the Champions Cup. However, it did not look like a wholly committed attempt to block the kick and he did end up leading into Halfpenny with his shoulder as opposed to an arm. Later that night, Faf de Klerk had a penalty given against him for a late hit on Camille Lopez that looked like a much more committed attempt to block the kick and a considerably less nasty looking contact with the kicker. What makes this incident even worse is that Kerevi’s shoulder appears to make contact with Halfpenny’s head, which is backed up by his concussion as his head does not bash against the floor as he drops. In this current climate, it is a shock that there was not even a penalty given for something that was at best reckless and at worst dangerous. Like with the Jones incident, all we ask for is consistency, there does not appear to have been much this weekend.


USA

They still have some way to go to take on the Tier 1 nations, but this USA team is one that’s on the up. Despite missing 2 of their stars in AJ MacGinty and Samu Manoa, and having captain Blaine Scully leave the field early, the Eagles impressed with some wonderful play from back rows Cam Dolan and Hanco Germishuys and powerful running form Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike. These two guys kept the Eagles on the front foot throughout the game and the Worcester hooker even continued his scoring run form the Summer Tests. Lasike, though really impressed me. The former NFL fullback, now playing in the Premiership for Harlequins consistently made ground when given the ball, but was not a one-trick pony (or shire horse given his size) and also worked the Samoa defence well by drawing them in expecting the crash ball but then playing the ball off to the men now in space outside him. If they continue to grow as a team over the coming years and more players like Psalm Wooching choose rugby over a career in the NFL, then the sky could be the limit for them.

Samoa

I really don’t understand the tactical decisions made in this game. Despite an experienced 10 in Tusi Pisi and players outside like Ahsee Tuala, JJ Taulagi, Alapati Leiua and Ray Lee-Lo, the Samoan strategy seems to have been to kick first. While it is great to see them playing a more structured style (something that has not always been seen with the Pacific Island teams), I really don’t think it played to their strengths. I have no problem with a tactical kicking game, but this should have been more interspersed with crash balls and spreading the ball wide to keep the defence on their toes. For so long, Samoa appeared to be the best and most well-rounded of the Pacific Islands, but now they are slipping down the World Rankings, which is a massive shame to see. They need to sort out their tactics soon if they want to start winning again on a regular basis.


Italy

Italy are a team on the up once again. Conor O’Shea has been improving Italian rugby as a whole and it is starting to show. They have some experienced internationals in captain Sergio Parisse (rested for this match), Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni (who has converted from flanker to lock), but they also now have a generation of quality young players coming through. Michele Campagnaro has been on the scene for an number of years but is only 25, while Jake Polledri and Seb Negri have taken the back row to a new level and consistently give the team front-foot ball. Add in the currently injured Matteo Minozzi, who was a star in the 6 Nations, and the signs are positive for the national team. The important thing is to give O’Shea the time as this is not a short-term plan, but instead a long-term reboot of Italian rugby to keep them competitive.

Georgia

Talk for a number of years has focused on whether Georgia should replace Italy in the 6 Nations. While I do agree that they are at a stage where they are too good for their current competition, this game showed that they still have a way to go to compete in the 6 Nations. After this match, I had a look at both the Georgian and Italian squads for the Autumn Internationals to see how they compared in their top flight experience. The entire Italian squad play in top 3 European leagues, with Parisse and Ghiraldini in the Top 14, Campagnaro and Polledri in the Premiership and the remainder of the squad playing for Benetton or Zebre in the Pro14. In contrast, the Lelos have 1 player in Super Rugby, 1 in the Premiership and 9 in the Top 14. Beyond that, the team has 1 player in the Championship (English second tier), 2 in the Professional Rugby League (Russian top flight), 7 in Rugby Pro D2 (French second tier) and the remainder of the players (all backs) are playing in the Georgian top tier. To make the next step, the Lelos need to be able to pick a squad full of players who are in the top European leagues and therefore playing weekly against other internationals. Now I’m not suggesting an exodus from Georgia, but instead a Georgian franchise in the Pro14. They may not have immediate success, but if they can start to bring through the next generation then they could begin to reach the next level much as Italy are currently improving again.


Scotland

The Scots may have ran away with the match in the end, but the match remained tight for the best part of an hour. Part of that was due to Scotland missing chances. Fraser Brown may have scored towards the end of the first quarter following a series of pick-and-go drives from the pack, but the try should have been scored a number of phases earlier when Peter Horne drew the last defender and had a chance to put Tommy Seymour over in the corner but instead chose to dummy the pass and appeared lucky to avoid a knock-on decision as he was tackled just short. Later in the game, Horne made a break through the middle and again held onto the ball rather than play it back inside to Greig Laidlaw who had a chance to keep the move going. Horne is a good player, but as someone in as a second distributor, he missed the chance to distribute the ball too many times and will need to improve to hold his spot in a competitive midfield.

Fiji

It will come as no surprise when I say that Fiji play some beautiful rugby. Add to that a improving structure to their play and they are really beginning to turn heads in international rugby. Unfortunately they still have a way to go to regularly compete against the Tier 1 teams and a big part of that comes down to discipline. The Fijians conceded 12 penalties in this match, which is too many against a Tier 1 nation, and lost both Tevita Cavubati and Leone Nakarawa sin binned, with the 10 minute periods overlapping to leave the team with only 13 men for about 5 minutes. Against a team as dangerous in attack as Scotland, it is hard enough to defend with 15 men on the pitch; it becomes pretty much impossible when 2 men down. Even worse, it will make it harder for the other players to keep going for the full match as they need to work harder during the sin bin periods to cover the extra space. The have a talented team but will not win regularly if they can’t keep the penalty count down.


France

35 minutes in with the score at 9-9, Teddy Thomas broke out from his own 22 down the right wing. Getting up towards the South African 22, he had only Willie le Roux to stop him but numerous teammates in support to put over for the try. Instead, the winger chose to keep the ball and was well tackled by the South African 15. Luckily for France, they scored a few minutes later after the Springboks failed to clear their lines, but it is criminal to not finish that chance by being selfish.

After finishing the first half on a high with Guirado’s try, France continued to build the momentum with a try for Matthieu Bastareaud just 95 seconds into the second half. However they then shot themselves in the foot at the restart and lost all momentum as Sébastien Vahaamahina attempted to catch the restart over his shoulder while moving towards his own line, but fumbled, allowing S’busiso Nkosi to go over for possibly the easiest try he will ever score. This was a stupid mistake from a player who should have known better. One of the first things I remember being taught about catching a high ball is that if you are moving towards your own line and have a teammate coming forwards able to take it, they should leave it for the player coming onto the ball, yet this was not done by Vahaamahina despite Camille Lopez being in position to take the ball. As well as letting the Springboks back into the game on the scoreboard, this also shifted the momentum firmly in the direction of the away team.

Despite all this, with just 1 minute remaining on the clock, the French found themselves with the lead and a scrum inside the South African 22. There was no way they could lose from there… but they did. With half a minute remaining, they gave away a penalty at the breakdown and when the Springboks put a bit too much length on the kick, Damian Penaud caught the ball in play, but then stepped into touch just before the 80 minutes was up, giving the Boks one last chance in the French half. From here, a series of French penalties gave South Africa the chance to win the game by driving over a lineout from close range.

Typical France. This is a game they should have won but they managed to throw it away with stupid mistakes.

South Africa

This was not a good match for the South African backs. Faf de Klerk’s kicking game was nowhere near the level of his recent appearances, while conversely the back line struggled to adapt to France’s kicking game as they heavily varied their kicks from chips to cross-kicks (Penaud was mere inches from collecting one for an early try) to high bombs like the one that led to Bastareaud’s try. In attack, the back line seemed nowhere near as effective as against England, while on one of the few times they did beat the French defence, Cheslin Kolbe did not protect the ball well enough as he went over the try line, leading to a try being disallowed – which should have cost them the game if not for the French errors. There has been a clear improvement in the Springboks since Rassie Erasmus took over, but they still have some way to go to be more consistent.


Ireland

Ireland did not look at their usual level against the Pumas. Jordan Larmour surely knows that he will be put under some pressure with the high ball, but at this point there is a clear difference in how well Ireland deal with the opponent’s kicking game when he is at 15 compared to Rob Kearney, who is arguably one of the best in the world under the high ball. But it wasn’t just Larmour who struggled, as Jacob Stockdale also fumbled a number of high balls and the team also failed to deal with a couple of restarts. Heading into the coming match against the All Blacks, Ireland will have to do much better in this area if they are to beat the World Champions.

Argentina

In recent seasons, the best part of the Argentinian team has been their back 3. Bautista Delguy has been fantastic since coming on the scene and in my opinion should have been nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year 2018 and along with Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli they have formed one of the most exciting and dangerous back 3s in World Rugby, yet they didn’t get much ball in this game other than when they were collecting Irish kicks and I think this limited the Pumas’ effectiveness during this game. I can’t help but wonder if the reticence to spread the ball was a worry as to Ireland’s effectiveness at the breakdown, so it will be interesting to see if their tactics will be any different this weekend against France, especially considering how good Bastareaud can be at the breakdown.