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: Combined XV

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Combined XV

The Autumn Series is over for another year. 1 year out from the Rugby World Cup and South Africa are developing a more expansive game; France and Ireland are reaching new heights; Italy are finally seeing the results from a complete rebuild of their infrastructure; and a number of big teams are looking in deep trouble.

And so as we look back on 5 weeks of action, all that remains is for me to make my customary combined XV, and let me tell you it was not easy given some of the performances. Who would make your XV? Let me know in the comments.


My Team of the Autumn Nations Series is…

1) Pierre Schoeman: Carried well and was strong in the scrummage to help create a platform for the backs to attack off, while also giving us a moment of comedy with his Superman impression as he tried illegally jumping over a tackle.

2) Ken Owens: The Sheriff’s return showed just what Wales have been missing at hooker. Had a few wobbles at the lineout but seemed more reliable than before his time out, while his carrying and willingness to make the hard metres is something that Wales has desperately needed.

3) Frans Malherbe: Found himself getting penalised at the scrum maybe a little more than usual, but the way he manhandled the English scrum was such a dominant performance that could not be ignored. Having been his plaything in 2 matches now, Mako Vunipola likely comes out in a cold sweat whenever he hears the Springbok’s name.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Tadhg Beirne: Etzebeth is in the form of his life and it is a joy to behold, that he wasn’t nominated for World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year is a farce! Meanwhile Beirne continues to do what he does best in every game: does his duty at the set piece, causes nightmares at the breakdown and has a positive impact in the loose.

6) Jac Morgan: The silver lining to a dismal Autumn for Wales. Carried in a way that Wales have been missing for a long time, consistently making yards in the contact and finishing with 4 tries. Looked completely at home on the Test stage and should now be looking to secure the 6 shirt as his during the Six Nations.

7) Dalton Papali’i: Sam Cane’s absence gave Papali’i a chance to show what he could do, and such was his quality that Ian Foster should be looking to name a new captain. Made a positive impact all over the pitch, while adding much more threat with ball in hand. Great reading of the English gameplan to intercept Jack van Poortvliet’s pass away from the lineout and had the pace to run in untouched from halfway.

8) Lorenzo Cannone: The younger Cannone brother is the second back row on this list to have only debuted for his country this year, but is fully deserving of his place here, even given the form of Ardie Savea. Looked comfortably at home on the Test stage and consistently popped up as a carrying option to help the Azzurri get on the front foot. Fully deserving of his tries against Samoa and South Africa.

9) Stephen Varney: Had a hard time last season with limited minutes for Gloucester, while his form in the Six Nations wasn’t great before his injury. But was back to his absolute best this Autumn, providing quick ball for his team while also controlling the game well with some great kicking.

10) Finn Russell: Gregor Townsend better feel like an absolute moron for dropping him. Came in after 2 ordinary performances from Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings and put in 2 wonderful performances, almost beating the All Blacks. With Russell playing, the Scottish performances are taken to a completely different level.

11) Mark Nawaqanitawase: Commentators better get used to pronouncing his name as he looks like he will be around for a long time. Looked better with each match he played and was key to Australia’s comeback against Wales. With his blend of pace and power, he reminds me somewhat of George North when he first hit the Test Rugby scene.

12) Stuart McCloskey: Finally got a chance and looked every bit the Test player, despite injury and personnel changes around him making it far harder to bed himself in. Hopefully he gets to keep the 12 shirt for the Six Nations but will come under pressure from the returning Bundee Aki.

13) Len Ikitau: Has secured his spot in the Australian XV and quietly gone about his business over the last year to under the radar become one of the best 13s in Test rugby. Despite frequent personnel changes all around him, Ikitau has become one of those reliable defensive linchpins up there with Chris Harris and Lukhanyo Am.

14) Kurt-Lee Arendse: Talk about taking your chances! The absence of Cheslin Kolbe gave Arendse his opportunity and he’s been undroppable since. Scored in every match of the series on the way to 5 tries in total, looking comfortable as part of the territory game or South Africa’s more expansive play.

15) Willie le Roux: This series showed just how vital le Roux is to the Springboks. As they looked at fly half options beyond the injured Handré Pollard, they looked rudderless when he wasn’t playing, but like potential World Cup winners when he was at 15, such is the way that he comes in as an extra playmaker and take pressure off of his 10. Always seems to be the one throwing the key pass for a South African try.


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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: Wales v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Australia

With World Rugby’s Test window officially over, Wales faced off against Australia in Cardiff for the final round of the series with both teams missing their English- and French-based talent, while injuries were leaving the Australian ranks especially depleted, but a strong first scrum allowed Ben Donaldson to open the scoring with an early penalty after Wales failed to secure the kickoff. It was the Welsh who scored the first try though; Tomow Williams crabbing off the back of a ruck to draw 2 tacklers and offloading to put Alun Wyn Jones through and into the 22, and the experienced lock fed Jac Morgan to power his way over for another try, having scored a brace last week against Georgia. Donaldson and Anscombe traded penalties as both teams tried to take control of the game, and as the game entered the second quarter, Wales managed to play the ball through the hands to put Taulupe Faletau over in the corner, Anscombe’s touchline conversion and another penalty soon after making it a 14-point lead. Australia finally made a chance of note, but Jed Holloway’s charge for the line was stopped by a fine tackle from Josh Adams, who had been promoted to the starting XV following a late injury to Leigh Halfpenny. Australia were finally managing to spend some time in the Welsh half though, and with the pressure, chances were starting to be created, only for loose handling skills to bring the attacks to a disappointing end, but they finally made their way over the line after a Welsh penalty allowed them to set up a driving maul from a 5m lineout to send Folau Fainga’a over for the try, Donaldson adding the extras. There was time for a Welsh response before the break though, and when Rio Dyer’s break was stopped just short of the line, Jake Gordon was sent to the bin for cynically impeding replacement scrum half Kieran Hardy as he tried to play the ball away. Wales looked to take advantage of the extra man by going for the scrum, but the Wallabies defence just managed to hold Hardy up over the line to end the half with the score at 20-13.

The second half started with Reece Hodge hitting the upright with a penalty from inside his own half, and they were unable to take advantage of the possession as a collapsed scrum saw replacement prop Tom Robertson—on at the break for captain James Slipper—sent to the bin as the Wallabies were already on a warning for scrum offences from the first half. With Gordon still in the bin for a couple of minutes, the Welsh took advantage of the extra 2 men to kick to the corner and drive Morgan over for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the game. And they were just inches away from scoring again as Anscombe’s cross-kick was just a little too long for Alex Cuthbert as they took advantage of playing 15v14. However with a penalty advantage, it was just a momentary delay, and a kick to the corner saw the Welsh keep the pressure on and eventually create the overlap to put Dyer over in the corner. Wales were dealt a blow as Gareth Anscombe suffered an injury as he attempted to tackle Ned Hanigan, with Rhys Priestland coming on in his place, and his first duty was to take the ball over his own line under pressure as his team failed to deal with a high ball from Tom Wright. Back to 15 men, the Wallabies, who had brought on a number of replacements, suddenly looked confident, and Mark Nawaqanitawase forced himself over in the corner, though replacement fly half Noah Lolesio was unable to land the conversion from the left touchline. As the game entered the final 15 minutes, replacement Pete Samu read the pass of Rhys Priestland to intercept it, and though he had 70m ahead of him, the way was clear, but for the outstretched leg of Justin Tipuric, who was sent to the bin for his trip. And the visitors immediately took advantage, kicking to the corner and running a clever move off the lineout to send Nawaqanitawase powering over for his second try of the game, Lolesio cutting the deficit to single figures with the conversion. The momentum was firmly shifted the way of the visitors, and with 7 minutes remaining, Ryan Elias collapsed a maul on its way to the line to give Australia a penalty try and 2-man advantage. And with just 2 minutes remaining, Nawaqanitawase carried the ball up to the Welsh 22, and as the ball was spread wide, Kieran Hardy failed to keep hold of his attempted intercept of Len Ikitau’s pass, and replacement hooker Ryan Lonergan picked up the loose ball to go over and give Australia the lead. With 1 minute left, Tipuric was back on for Wales, and when Australian latchers went off their feet at what would have been the last ruck, Wales had 1 more chance. Priestland didn’t help his pack with a kick that should have gone to the corner only just making the 22, and as the 14 men went through the phases, Lonergan managed to turn the ball over and kick it out for a 34-39 victory.

It’s been a poor Autumn for Wales, but one bright spark has been the form of Jac Morgan. 22-year-old Ospreys back row was one of the few bright sparks with his 2 tries against Georgia (having had a third disallowed), and if anything, he looked even better this week.

One thing that the Welsh pack has consistently lacked in recent years is carrying options in the pack. Players who can consistently take hold of the ball and make the hard metres to put the attack on the front foot. Well Morgan—previously left out of Welsh squads as he lacked the carrying ability Wayne Pivac wanted—was providing exactly that, consistently making metres not just in space, but in and through contact, so it’s no surprise that, with an attacking fly half controlling the game, the Welsh attack was able to get going in a way we have not really seen recently.

Going forwards Morgan needs to be makingthat 6 shirt his own, but Pivac’s made a habit of being consistently inconsistent in his back row selections. Morgan needs to make sure that his form stays at least at this level to ensure Pivac has no excuse to drop him.

Running on fumes

Despite the win, this was another bad performance for Australia, but can anyone really be surprised. The Wallabies were playing for their 5ᵗʰ consecutive week, in a month where World Rugby’s Test window lasted 3 weeks. 5 Tests in 5 weeks is hard enough at the best of times, but to come so soon after the Rugby Championship just makes it even more of a burden on the players.

So is it any surprise to see that the team just ran out of gas as these tests went on? They were playing too much rugby in too short a time, with things being made even worse as the team suffered injury after injury. And these 2 things combined to leave the Wallabies playing with a XV made up of players who are on the ultimate fringe of the squad and players who have played too much rugby and are running on fumes.

And if there are 2 things that will kill a team’s chances in the game, its exhaustion and a lack of familiarity with your teammates, as both will create and accentuate gaps in the defensive line, while also leading to unforced errors in attack.

Whose idea was it to play so much rugby, and why? Because it certainly doesn’t feel like the players’ wellbeing was of foremost thought, and it has left the team in the ultimate slump less that a year out from the World Cup.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v Japan

Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v Japan

Another successful Autumn came to an end for France with the visit of Japan. Les Bleus’ decision to play their strongest available XV as a clear mark of respect to their opponents, who had the first attack of note as Kazuki Himeno sniped off a ruck and carried into the 22, though a handling error eventually ended the pressure and a penalty at the scrum allowed the hosts to clear their lines. France were soon on the attack, though, and after phases of pressure on the edge of the 22, Romain Ntamack’s grubber was kicked on by Damian Penaud, and when fullback Ryohei Yamanaka failed to keep hold of it as he covered across, Penaud dived on the loose ball for the opening try. As conditions worsened, Japan struggled to deal with the French conveyor belt of hard carriers, eventually gifting Thomas Ramos the simplest of penalties, and he added another just after the 15 minute mark as Koo Ji-won obstructed France’s routes to the kicker, while Les Bleus were forced into a reshuffle of their backs due to an injury to Gaël Fickou, resulting in Yoram Moefana moving into 13 and back row Sekou Macalou again coming on as a wing. Japan finally got on the scoreboard as the first quarter ended; Ntamack choosing to run back a kick with no support led to him being turned over, and Anthony Jelonch was forced to illegally slow down the Japanese breakdown to give Lee Seung-Sin an easy kick off the tee. Japan had a half-chance soon after as a tip-on off the top of a French lineout failed to find it’s man and scrum half Naoto Saito kicked on, but though he beat his opposition to the ball, his next kick on was overhit and saw the ball go dead. The late deluge of rain was affecting French plans as the ball became slippery in hands, but the monstrous carrying of the French pack won a penalty in front of the posts for Ramos to convert with 30 minutes gone. And as the game approached halftime, Maxime Lucu took advantage of some confusion after another ball came off the top of the lineout to break down the 5m channel, before feeding his captain Charles Ollivon for the try, Ramos adding the extras for a 21-3 lead at the break.

Japan has started the first half with a breakaway, and they did again for the second half, with Shogo Nakano shooting through agap, but this time the immediate support was there on his shoulder from Saito to take the pass and go over for the try, Seung-Sin converting. Franc were soon back to controlling the game as their powerful carries in midfield made space for the backs to exploit out wide, though there were some moments where they still looked somewhat disjointed. A cut to the bridge of his nose that caused heavy bleeding brought an end to Ntamack’s game, with Matthieu Jalibert coming on, and his clever mid-length kick down the wing caused nightmares for the Japanese defence and allowed him to recover it and feed Bastien Chalureauto carry the ball up to 5m out, and when the ball was fed back, it was spread wide to the left for Damian Penaud to score his second of the game. However, an error at the restart from Grégory Alldritt gifted the Brave Blossoms a penalty kick to the corner, and a clever planned move off the top saw Siosaia Fifita sent over untouched. France looked to immediately answer and thought they had when Penaud put Jonathan Danty over in the corner, but replays showed that though his dive avoided him stepping into touch, the ball was dotted down on the touch-in-goal line. But France secured the victory with 7 minutes remaining. A cheeky chip and collect into the Japanese 22 from Matthieu Jalibert put the defence in disarray, and when the ball came out to Danty on the wing, he played it back inside to Anthony Jelonch to score. However Jalibert’s next action was not so silky: winning the chase of a kick back into his in-goal, but then trying to play his way out and floating the offload into touch, but the French defence held firm on their line and secured the turnover, along with a 35-17 victory that secures an unbeaten 2022 for Les Bleus. 

Wing forward

Sekou Macalou may have just secured his spot in the 23 over the last couple of weeks. A back row by trade, the 27-year-old has come on early in both matches due to injuries, but with France favouring a 6-2 split with Matthieu Jalibert and a scrum half covering the backs, he has found himself coming on to play wing.

And while many forwards in his situation would do their best impersonation of a fish out of water, jelonch put in performances that actually looked like a Test wing. His pace was enough to hold his own, while his positioning was extremely impressive, especially in defence, where he would not commit himself too early and knew to use his touchline as an extra defender.

So why does this secure his space in the 23? For the exact potential situations we have seen the last 2 weeks. France clearly have the preference of a 6-2 split, but when you look at their ideal 23, it leaves them with nobody to cover the wings. However, if you have a forward who can do such an impressive job there—just consider the quality of wing he has faced over recent weeks—it allows Fabien Galthié to select the extra forward on the bench safe in the knowledge that Macalou can cover an emergency at wing, making it effectively a 5.5-2.5 split instead.

Unprepared

This Japan side was heavily changed from the one who lost to England last week, and that just highlighted one massive point: This team is still trying to find themselves one year out from the World Cup.

Much like Georgia and Fiji, they are a team who have the quality to take Tier 1 scalps, but without being in the Six Nations or Rugby Championship, they do not get the regular fixtures against Tier 1 opposition that they need to stop these occasional victories being an upset, and arguably they do not get enough matches period, which has certainly not been helped by the impact of COVID earlier in the cycle.

Rugby has reached an important point in its life. The top teams outside Tier 1 need to be playing in major competitions against Tier 1 opposition with regularity in order to keep growing, while teams like Chile and Portugal making it to the World Cup at the expense of the USA, who just a few years ago were in incredible form, has highlighted just how close everything is getting below Tier 1.

The international calendar needs a shake-up sooner rather than later. It is probably time for at least another 4 nations to be added to the World Cup, while existing Tier 1 competitions (the Six Nations and Rugby Championship) need amending or replacing to keep with the times and acknowledge the growth of rugby around the world.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

After last week’s historic victory over Australia, Italy were on to Genoa to face South Africa. The World Champions were fielding a strong side, but without Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus following his ban for a series of disgusting tweets blaming Wayne Barnes for last week’s defeat to France.

Italy were clearly bouyed with confidence after last week’s win, but maybe a little too much as Tommaso Allan floated his first pass into touch just 5m from his try line, but Italy were let off as the Springboks chose to go quick and Faf de Klerk found himselfin touch as he went down a non-existent blind side. It was only a minor reprieve, though, as the visitors spread the ball wide on their next possession, and Willie le Roux took advantage of the inside defence blitzing up and leaving Ange Capuozzo covering 2 men to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the opposite corner. Despite the early setback, Italy were still looking to play attacking rugby, and a South African offence at the breakdown allowed Allan to cut the deficit to 2 points with a penalty from 40 metres. Cheslin Kolbe immediately responded with a penalty of his own after Giacomo Nicotera cleared Siya Kolisi beyond the breakdown at the restart, but the Azzurri hit straight back with some quick hands from Michele Lamaro sending the looping Capuozzo through a gap and over for a try, with Allan’s conversion giving the hosts the lead. As the second quarter began, Allan and Kolbe traded penalties as both teams looked to play positive attacking rugby, and after half an hour, Bongi Mbonambi peeled off a maul to crash over for a try, though the placement of the ball seemed very delayed and he was probably lucky to stay on the field after telling referee Matt Carley to “referee both sides”. Italy were straight back on the attack and threatening the South African line, but after they kicked a penalty to the corner, the Springboks pack managed to nullify the catch and drive to turn the ball over, and the teams went in at the break with the score 13-18.

Eben Etzebeth soon made his entrance just minutes into the second period, but the first points came from the boot of Tommy Allan as Faf de Klerk chased a kick from an onside position, but the Azzurri failed to deal with the restart, allowing Kolbe to win the ball in the air and go in for the try unchallenged, though he hurt himself doing so and had to be replaced by young fly half Manie Libbok, whose introduction immediately opened up the attack, allowing Arendse to go over for his second try just minutes after the restart, Libbok taking over the kicking duties and landing the conversion from the touchline. Italy were still looking to attack, but a penalty to the 22 failed to find touch as they looked to find a quick response, and South Africa made them pay as Kwagga Smith crashed over for the try the next time the Boks made it into the Italian 22, while the driving maul send Malcolm Marx over for a try just after the hour. The hosts refused to let their heads drop though, and after going the length with some beautiful varied attacking rugby, Lorenzo Cannone continued an impressive start to his Test career by crossing for his 2ⁿᵈ Test try. South Africa soon hit back though the rampaging ginger rhino Steven Kitshoff, but the game soon faced a long stoppage after Edoardo Padovani got his head in his wrong place in a tackle at the restart. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, a great backs move off a scrum saw le Roux go through the gap and feed Willemse—now playing on the wing—for a try, while a late break for Arendse allowed hi to put Cobus Reinach over for a try right at the death, Libbok kicking the conversion for a 21-63 victory for the Springboks, though the game still ended on a high for Genoa-born Pierre Bruno as his proposal was accepted after the game in front of a cheering crowd.

Pride

Let’s be honest, an Italian win against that Springbok squad was always going to be a dream. The important thing here for the Azzurri was that they backed up last weekend’s win with a good performance. And you could argue that they did exactly that.

Yes there were a few costly errors, but this was a great performance from the hosts in front of a cheering crowd, and they were every bit as in the game as the Boks in the first half, while the visitors’ superior quality proved the difference as the game went on. But even then, they never let their heads drop and continued trying to play their game, highlighted by Cannone’s late try.

More importantly, this is a team who are playing with a clear identity and shape right now—which is more than can be said for some Tier 1 Teams—and the players are seeing the positive results from playing this way, which will just continue to encourage them, and with players like Capuozzo, Alessandro Garbisi and Lorenzo Cannone coming through, and Jake Polledri continuing his return from injury with Gloucester, they are creating even more depth in their squad.

Expect to see this team continue to build in 2023.

The answer?

I’ve been saying for a while that South Africa have an issue at fly half, but could Manie Libbok be the answer? The 25-year-old from the Sharks came on for just his 2ⁿᵈ cap, and while he was probably helped by the arrival of Eben Etzebeth and the bomb squad providing quicker ball, he calmly slotted into the fly half position and took over control of the game alongside Willie le Roux with an assuredness that far exceeded his Test experience.

While Damian Willemse has his moments, he looks much more suited to the utility back role right now, whereas Libbok looks like a legitimate option at fly half, especially as South Africa look to start playing a more attacking style of rugby, as he has the range of passing to keep the attack varied, is comfortable switching with Willie le Roux as play demands, will willingly take the ball to the line and on top of all that, will be able to take on the kicking duties!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s crazy to think that he has not been given more of a chance to stake his claim this year, and I think that Jacques Nienaber needs to give him the start next week against England and at least let him play an hour, if not the whole game. If given a fair chance, he could legitimately be pushing Handré Pollard for the starting spot.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Georgia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Wales v Georgia

The last full round of Autumn Nations Series fixtures kicked off in Cardiff as Wales welcomed Georgia to the Principality Stadium. The pressure seemed off of Wayne Pivac following a win over toothless Argentina last weekend, but his men found themselves behind within minutes of the kickoff courtesy of a penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze. A period of Welsh pressure after 15 minutes gave them a penalty to the corner, but after the maul was halted, the ball was spread wide and Alex Cuthbert found himself tackled into touch by Davit Niniashvili. However a clever lineout move a few minutes later saw Jac Morgan go over for the try, Rhys Priestland adding the extras. And Morgan was over for another just minutes later as quick recycling of the ball allowed Tomos Williams to find him unmarked on the blind side. Wales were turning a period of dominance into points, and thought they had a third try after Josh Adams won the chase to his own kick, only for a forward pass to him from Tomos Williams to wipe the score off the board. and the teams went into the break with the score at 12-3.

The second period started much like the first, with most of the game taking place between the 22s, but Wales’ decision to keep kicking the ball came back to haunt them on 50 minutes as Alex Cuthbert was given a yellow card for taking out Alexander Todua in the air. And the Georgians took advantage once they made it into the Wales 22, with Abzhandadze’s cross-kick finding Todua in acres of space for a try just before the hour, with Abzhandadze’s conversion making it a 2-point game. And as the Lelos got the momentum, the fly half had a chance to put them ahead with 15 minutes remaining with a penalty, only to pull the kick to the left. With 7 minutes remaining, it looked like Jac Morgan had completed his hattrick after an error from Niniashvili under the high ball, but replays showed that Taulupe Faletau had knocked on in the build-up as he tried to collect his own kick on. A massive Georgian scrum allowed them to clear their lines, and the next with 3 minutes remaining demolished the Welsh scrum on their own ball to earn a penalty, and with his first kick of the game, 21-year-old replacement fly half Luka Matkava kept his nerve to kick the Lelos into the lead. An error at the restart gifted Wales with one more opportunity off a scrum, but the Georgian pack once again demolished them on their own ball to earn a penalty and secure an historic 12-13 victory.

Freefalling

Georgia are an improving team with a good solid defence, but let’s be honest: they aren’t Ireland or the Springboks. And yet Wales made them look like such with an aimless attack.

Yes they may have had a spell where they scored 2 tries (and just missed on another) in the first half, but beyond that the attack looked pedestrian, despite a the entire back line being regulars in the 23 or highly experienced internationals. And while the pack showed a few more changes, you would have thought there was still enough there to beat the Lelos.

Instead, the attack looked aimless as Tomos Williams and Rhys Priestland kicked ball away, the pack struggled to make any metres of note in contact and the return of Owen Watkin at 12 appeared to break any midfield chemistry that had been building between George North and Nick Tompkins. And it all combined to leave players like Louis Rees-Zammit feeding of scraps.

Wayne Pivac has been in the role for years now, and yet there is no consistency of selection as he appears to still have no idea what his best XV or his team identity is. And with losses at home to both Italy and Georgia in 2022, they are lucky that the Six Nations relegation suggestions haven’t began in the same way they do each time Italy lose a game. It seems clear now that Pivac is not the man to lead the team, and while replacing him now would be a late call, it would allow Wales to use the Six Nations as a chance to prove themselves. Let’s be honest, even a poor World Cup under someone else would surely be an improvement on the current situation, where an exit at the pool stages seems the least of their worries, as finishing outside the top 3 of a pool made up of Georgia, Fiji, Australia and Portugal (and thereby missing out on automatic qualification for RWC2027) looks a real possibility.

A seat at the table

This is a big day for Georgia, their first win over a Tier 1 nation other than Italy (who they beat in the summer), and at the Principality Stadium of all places! The calls have been loud for Georgia to get more matches against Tier 1, and following this result they are sure to get deafening.

We’ve seen in the past how it took so long for Argentina and Italy to win their spot in Tier 1 tournaments that the team who earned them the spot soon aged out with a lack of quality underneath, so that cannot be allowed to happen again here. And while there is plenty of experience is the squad, there is also a generation of exciting young talent in their 20s coming through, spearheaded by Abzhandadze, Vasil Lobzhanidze (preparing for his 3ʳᵈ Rugby World Cup despite being only 26), Niniashvili and Giorgi Kveseladze, who was missing from this game.

Georgia need every chance to continue building after this Rugby World Cup, and to do that, they need 2 things:

  • They need to be playing regularly against Tier 1 opposition, and that means finding a way to get them into a top competition, which will then see Tier 1 Nations playing in Tbilisi, which will only help grow the sport in the country.
  • They need to get at least 1 club side into a top tier competition, while ideally also keeping a sprinkling of players through other leagues, as this will just widen the number of players getting regular matches against Test-level players

If the Lelos can get these things soon, the next cycle could be massive for them.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

After defeating the World Champions and testing their depth against Fiji, Ireland’s Autumn Nations Series campaign came to an end with the visit of Australia. The Wallabies were looking to get back on track after following up an impressive display against France with an historic loss to Italy, and they thought that they had got a near-perfect start as Nic White sniped over for a try after just 3 minutes, only for a neck roll in the build-up from Dave Porecki to wipe it out, while Hunter Paisami was lost to injury, Jordan Petaia taking his place. Ireland had lost Jonathan Sexton in the warm-up, leading to a first Test start for Munster’s Jack Crowley, and the young fly half opened the scoring with a penalty after 9 minutes. In a tight affair, Bernard Foley missed with his first chance off the tee as the first quarter came to an end while a good kick to the cormed with 6 minutes left in the half jut saw the lineout stolen by James Ryan. Discipline was frequently costing the the Wallabies in the Irish half, and with 5 minutes left in the half, Folau Fainga’a—on a a HIA replacement for Dave Porecki—was sent to the bin for a neck roll, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man to go to the corner. But when Dan Sheehan was stopped just short of the line as the maul spun towards the touchline, Jamison Gibson-Park was not careful enough with his foot placement and played the ball at the ruck with a foot in touch, bringing the half to a disappointing end and the score at 3-0.

Ireland looked to start the second half positively and take advantage of the extra man, but were unable to find the killer pass to convert the pressure, while what looked like a try for Jamison Gibson-Park as Fainga’a was about to return to the field was ruled out as Mack Hansen just put a foot on the line before offloading to his scrum half as Nic White and Bernard Foley tried to force him into touch. As the game approached the hour mark, Bernard Foley kicked a penalty to draw the teams level, but any celebrations were muted as Taniela Tupou left the pitch on a stretcher following a non-contact leg injury. The crowd was brought into voice with 15 minutes remaining though as a strong carry from Caelan Doris off a lineout in the Australian 22 put the Irish on he front foot, and after Craig Casey’s snipe was stopped by a high tackle, the forwards drew in the defence with a series of pick and go drives, before casey’s flat pass allowed replacement Bundee Aki to crash over for the first try of the game, Crowley adding the extras with a simple conversion. And it was as if the try was a shot of Red Bull to the veins, as Australia immediately went down the field and spread the ball to send Petaia over in the corner, with Foley curling the conversion in. With just under 10 minutes remaining, Ross Byrne was brought on to replace the inexperienced Crowley, an just minutes after his introduction, a scrum penalty allowed him a kick at goal from out wide that he made look simple. With just 2 minutes left, the visitors won a penalty out wide ont he edge of the Irish 22 and made the call to go for the corner, only for them to concede a penalty as the backs came to join the maul and failed to enter from the back, and Ireland held on to secure the 13-10 victory.

Building again

For so long now the Irish centre pairing has been almost as easy to guess as the starting fly half if Jonathan Sexton was fit, with 2 out of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki starting, and often the other on the bench. Now, after years of impressing for Ulster, Stuart McCloskey is finally getting selected again for the national team, but it’s hampering the team’s fluidity.

And it’s not his fault, but just a matter of chemistry. Those 3 centres were so used to playing in the various combinations that they could help cover for even a sub-par fly half, as they had the chemistry to naturally know where the other would be. Now, wth McCloskey finally getting a shot, he is finding himself having to get used to everything: the Irish system, different fly halves and also different centre partners, which also hasn’t been helped by his early injury against South Africa and Robbie Henshaw’s against Fiji. And to have 3 different starting fly halves over this time won’t have helped things either.

It just highlights the importance of not just building your 23 early in your world cup cycle, but the entire wider squad and beyond. Yes there will always be bolters, but you want to minimise the impact any late bolters or injuries to key players has on the squad chemistry. Mich like I have argued that Sexton has taken too many of the minutes this cycle, has there been too much focus on the main 3 centres, and could this come back to haunt the Irish in France?

Shooting themselves in the foot

This was a perfectly winnable match for Australia. Their defence found ways to cope with Ireland for much of the game, while their few attacks of note did find chinks in the Irish armour. However they continually shot themselves in the foot with poor discipline.

I lost count of just how many attacks were ended by a gold-shirted arm finding its way around an Irish neck, making it all too easy for the officials to call the neck roll, so many so that it not only cost them an early try, but also eventually led to Folau Fainga’a being sent to the bin, while the lineout that led to Aki’s try was courtesy of a penalty to touch, and Rob Valentini was lucky to have a SANZAAR referee in charge to deem his head clash with Dan Sheehan just a penalty rather than the card he deserved.

Is there not enough focus on discipline during the week? Is it an arrogance to think that they can get away without officials seeing? Something must be causing this issue. And it needs sorting fast, or the team will just continue its freefall down the world rankings.


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