Six Nations 2020: France v Italy

Six Nations 2020: France v Italy

The 2ⁿᵈ round of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Paris as Italy took on France. Les Bleus took an early lead through the boot of Romain Ntamack before Teddy Thomas and Charles Ollivon crossed to give them a handy advantage. Italy grew into the game and Matteo Minozzi crossed to make it a contest, before Grégory Alldritt’s try just before half time. The second half was a much closer affair. Ntamack crossed to secure a bonus point for France, before a series of French penalties led to a try for Federico Zani.

Italy frequently found themselves (wrongly) on the wrong side of the officials’ decisions as the game went on, with referee Andrew Brace ignoring/missing (honestly it happened so often in the match, I’m not certain!) a number of French offences that allowed them to push the Italians right back, and a late try from substitute Baptiste Serin secured the game for Italy, despite a late try from Mattia Bellini, the game ending 35-22.

France

Romain Ntamack is a fantastic young player and is doing a good job of leading the French back line despite not always being considered the starting fly half for Toulouse yet. However, he is not yet perfect and in a closer game, his goal kicking could prove to be an issue.

Granted, this match was not the ideal conditions for a goal kicker, but Ntamack ended the game with just 3/7 successful kicks, missing a couple that an international kicker would be expected to nail. Even one of those successful kicks needed a double-doink off both posts to ensure it went through! When the game became a tight affair in the second half, it looked like those missed kicks could potentially prove costly, and it seemed to hit his confidence a little, causing further errors in his game as the team dropped off. Luckily for France it didn’t prove costly this weekend, but it is certainly possible that one of their remaining matches could come down to goal kicking. Ntamack is not the first choice kicker at Toulouse, so will this lead to a change for France in Round 3?

There are certainly options. Thomas Ramos could come in at 15, but he currently seems down the pecking order. Baptiste Serin is an adept kicker, but has the issue of competing for the 9 jersey with Antione Dupont, who is arguably one of the best scrum halves in the world right now. Another option would be to bring in Matthieu Jalibert or Louis Carbonel at fly half. While they could drop Ntamack from the bench in this final case, I also think that they could look to move him to 12, as Gaël Fickou has had a limited impact so far, so a change to a dual-playmaker system could help unleash a back line that includes (when they are all fit) Damian Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas.

Italy

Sometimes, I really don’t know what Italy are trying to do. Early in the game, the Azzurri seriously struggled to make any ground as they were unable to get around the French blitz defence. The blitz was also making Tommaso Allan stand very deep when looking to kick the ball clear. This meant that it was even harder for him to make ground with the pressure coming on him. and yet it took forever for Callum Braley to start taking charge and box kicking himself in dangerous situations.

Similarly, Carlo Canna is the last person I would think of if I heard the phrase “crash ball centre” but he was frequently used as such in this game – honestly I’m surprised that he lasted the full 80 minutes in one piece! And once again, the game began with Italy sending one-out forward runners into the heart of the French defence. I was worried that this game could become a bloodbath.

Then in the 24ᵗʰ minute, things began to change. Jake Polledri took the ball on the blind side, but instead of crashing forward, he turned and played the ball out to Allan, catching out the blitzing French and leading to Minozzi’s try. Then as the game went on, Italy seemed to be supporting their runners with more intent, quick ball was produced and the forwards used this to make even more ground, adding in offloads out of the tackle and off the floor.

Unfortunately, the officials were either incapable or unwilling to referee the 2 teams equally and a number of promising attacks were unfairly ended by the French, to the point that I feel the Italians can consider themselves hard done by to come away with nothing from the game.

After seeing such positive results, hopefully we will see more of this more varied game from Italy in 2 weeks.


My standout players

It’s no real surprise to see Antoine Dupont and Matteo Minozzi featuring in this section as they are absolute live-wires on a weekly basis.

Jake Polledri was a big par of Italy’s success, with a whopping 25 tackles and also 11 carries, many of which helped put Italy on the front foot.

Finally, Carlo Canna deserves some recognition for his variety of play, helping Allan control the back line and spreading the ball to the wings, but also doing a good job of crashing the ball up the middle to keep the French defence guessing, though I imagine he’ll be feeling it tomorrow!

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

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

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

Scotland

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

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

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

England

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

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

Vaas Montenegro – Far Cry 3

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

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

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


My standout players

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

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

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

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

The 2ⁿᵈ weekend of the 2020 Six Nations kicked off with a match begin 2 of Round 1’s winning teams. Wales travelled to the Aviva Stadium, but after a close start they found themselves going behind after Jordan Larmour stepped his way through Nick Tompkins’ attempted tackle for the opening try. Tomos Williams soon crossed and Dan Biggar converted to give Wales the lead, but it was short-lived as Tadhg Furlong barrelled over to put the Irish back ahead. The second half saw the home team pull away with tries from Josh van der Flier and Andrew Conway either side of a disallowed Hadeigh Parkes try, while Justin Tipuric crossed with the final play of the game to make the final score of 24-14 look more respectable.

Ireland

For so long, Wales have been one of the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere when it comes to the breakdown. Though they had some success early in the game, it was generally as an Irish player found themselves isolated. When the breakdown became a contest, Ireland were largely dominant.

Perhaps it helps that they have an extremely physical pack and midfield when Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are on the pitch, but whatever it is, it is hard to stop. I was critical of CJ Stander last season, but he has looked back to his best in these first 2 rounds and was the real stand-out player on Saturday. Every time Wales got something going, it felt like Stander was there bent over the man on the floor, winning the ball back or earning the Irish a penalty. Yes, he was pinged a couple of times, resulting in a late yellow card, but even a couple of those decisions were very close (by the standards that you see at every other breakdown, even if technically the calls were correct).

With Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony taking responsibility for the majority of the tackling in the back row, it allows Stander to focus on winning the ball back. The one thing this back row does lack though is significant carrying metres. It will be interesting to see how the back row’s performance changes if Caelan Doris is given that starting spot back in favour of Peter O’Mahony in Round 3.

Wales

While the big talk has been about the change of head coach from Warren Gatland to Wayne Pivac, what probably hasn’t been discussed enough is the loss of Shaun Edwards to France. Byron Hayward may be a great coach, but he is replacing arguably one of the best defensive coaches in the game and it will take time for him to settle at international level. His case certainly isn’t helped either by having some key personnel like Jonathan Davies missing.

While it is still early days, it looks like the defensive organisation needs a lot of work over the next couple of weeks. I can’t remember the last time I saw the team defend so narrow!Right from the opening minutes, Ireland were finding joy spreading the ball wide and getting around the edge of the Welsh defensive line. I can’t help wonder if this was the case against Italy as well, but just not as obvious as the Italians allowed the defence to drift better.

Why did they defend like this? Had they predicted a tighter game due to the predicted adverse weather conditions? Were they trying to defend super narrow to deal with the physicality of the Irish pack and midfield? Or is Hayward seriously miscalculating his players’ ability to cover the width of the pitch effectively from a narrow starting point?

With France up next and likely coming in off the back of 2 wins with one of the most dangerous back lines in the competition, Wales need to sort their defence out quickly.


My standout players

As I’ve already mentioned, CJ Stander was superb in his defensive work and is really looking back to his best.

Jordan Larmour continues to look assured in the starting lineup and appears to ave made the 15 shirt his own, while his fellow back 3 member Andrew Conway appears to be doing the same with the 14 shirt, putting in a great 2-way performance and making some fantastic clearing kicks.

While Wales had a poor day, Alun Wyn Jones put in another majestic performance, completing 22/23 tackles while also playing an important role in the attack with some strong carrying and deft offloads.

Hadleigh Parkes also looked back to his best after an injury-disrupted World Cup, putting in a strong defensive performance and also being the team’s primary carrier with 16 carries for 27 metres.

Six Nations 2020: France v England

Six Nations 2020: France v England

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

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

France

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

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

England

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

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

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

Eddie Jones, 2019

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

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

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

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


My standout players

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

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

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

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Ireland kicked off their first Six Nations campaign under Andy Farrell with a match at home against Scotland. The two teams faced off in their first match at the Rugby World Cup, where Ireland thoroughly outplayed their fellow Home Nation, but this was a much closer affair.

Scotland had some disruptions in the build-up to the match with Finn Russell being stood down for “breaching team protocol”, but his replacement Adam Hastings gave Scotland an early lead off the tee before Johnny Sexton crossed the whitewash for a try which he converted – he went on to score all of Ireland’s points in this match. Stuart Hogg was the new Scotland captain after having asked for the role and it looked like he had scored a try of his own, only for replays to show that he has lost possession of the ball as he went over – a costly error as Ireland went on to win 19-12.

Ireland

When I looked at Ireland in my RWC2019 Debriefs, I mentioned that I felt the time of relying on Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton should be coming to an end for Ireland. Apparently Andy Farrell thought otherwise as he chose to stick with both of them, despite having one of the form players in Europe (John Cooney) in his squad.

In this match, I wouldn’t necessarily criticise the performances of either player, nor Peter O’Mahony or Devin Toner – who was left out of the World Cup squad – but I also don’t feel that any of them put in truly standout performances, aside from Murray and Sexton’s link for the try. To be frank, Ireland were there for the taking and were lucky that Scotland struggled in a key area (more on that below).

Personally, I thought that Cooney really improved the tempo when he was introduced for the last quarter, while Jordan Larmour gave a real spark in the 15 jersey that it looks like he has inherited from Rob Kearney. Right now, I’m not sure if someone is ready to step up and replace Sexton, but they need to start getting regular gametime to build up that experience. If I was Andy Farrell, I would take advantage of Cooney’s form to bring him into the 9 shirt and make him a fixture in the XV this season. That way, they can build to make the transition to a new 10 as Sexton (probably) tours with the Lions.

Scotland

Last year, Scotland’s issue was that they did not have the right balance to their team. They did not have the physical carriers to help them earn the right to go wide. Against Ireland this weekend, the balance as there and Scotland were fully able to hold their own against the Irish. Unfortunately, it looks like they are still trying to get used to this.

While they often got into the Irish 22, the only time they made it across the line was when Stuart Hogg knocked on. Otherwise, a number of attacks came to an end as Ireland managed to get latched onto the tackled ball carrier and either complete the turnover or win the penalty. This happened far too often and arguably cost the Scots the game.

Scotland need to make sure that as well as trucking it up the middle, they are getting the support men there to secure quick ball. If they can make this little change, they will be deadly!


My standout players

CJ Stander was another player who I had previously said needed to step up and earn his place back, and he certainly did that on Saturday, carrying hard and regularly while also earning a couple of key turnovers, all while having to adapt from playing 6 to moving to number 8 just a few minutes in following Caelan Doris’ early head injury.

The aforementioned Jordan Larmour also put in another strong counterattacking performance at 15 and will have put himself in a good position to make the position his own for the coming years.

For Scotland, Adam Hastings put in an assured performance, controlling the game well and putting his team in the right areas of the pitch. His performance here should reassure Scotland fans that they can still be competitive without Finn Russell if his absence continues.

In the back row, Hamish Waston continued to show himself to be one of the key players on the team. The flanker was a constant nuisance at rucks and mauls and one great break was a timely reminder of his ability with ball in hand.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

The 2020 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday in Cardiff with a match between Wales and Italy. Both teams were early in the process of moving on from the Rugby World Cup with new men at the helm in Wayne Pivac and interim head coach Franco Smith respectively.

Wales came in with a number of players missing through injury, leading to George North making a rare appearance at outside centre, but they made the better start and found themselves taking an early lead with 3 penalties from the boot of Dan Biggar (my thoughts are with everyone who picked Leigh Halfpenny as their fantasy kicker this weekend) before adding 2 tries through Josh Adams. Italy fought hard but the closest they could come to scoring was at the end of the half when their 5m catch and drive lineout was dealt with. In the second half, it was all Wales, as the men in red added a further 2 tries through debutant Nick Tompkins and George North, before Josh Adams finished off his hat-trick with the final play of the game to complete a 42-0 victory.

Wales

This may have ended up a comfortable victory for Wales, but there will certainly be some things that they look at ahead of next week. The Italian scrum has not looked great in recent years, so to see it look so strong in this game makes me feel that it is in part due to Wales’ weakness in this area, something that hurt them in the latter half of last season.

Wyn Jones has looked strong at loosehead of late, moving ahead of Rob Evans and Nicky Smith, but he had a torrid time against Andrea Lovotti. Meanwhile on the other side of the scrum, things look a lot bleaker when Tomas Francis is unavailable. I think that it’s time for Sale’s WillGriff John to be given a shot in the national team.

Similarly, there were some issues for Wales at the lineout. Ken Owens is a fantastic servant for Wales but overthrew one lineout and had another throw pinged for not being straight. There was also another moment when Wales gave away a free kick for not setting up properly.

Between the scrums and the lineouts, this is an area of the game that Wales need to try and tighten up. They may have got away with it against Italy, but issues on your own set piece in a tight game are going to put you in a very difficult position.

Italy

As someone who frequently argues that Italy deserve a spot in top tier competition, watching them play can be a chore at times.

Going into this match, I was interested to see how Italy would fare with a dual-playmaker system of Tommaso Allan at 10 and Carlo Canna at 12. While they certainly got the ball moving more than in some recent matches and made almost 400m with the ball, their attack still looked horribly stifled and to be honest, I don’t think the system worked for them.

Though they had 2 playmakers, there was very little being done in the Italian attacking line to create space and break the defensive line in midfield. When you watch many teams, there will be players running crash balls or dummy runners, however watching Italy, it often felt like this was missing and that Italy were just playing the ball along the line, meaning that the defence was able to drift on them. The back rowers and forward runners did some good work but it was usually limited to just one pass out from the ruck. In players like Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Braam Steyn and Niccolo Cannone, Italy have a great set of ball carriers who they need to take advantage of in midfield. A player like Polledri could cause some real trouble if he can break through the defensive line in the centre of the pitch, while the players needed to defend against him as a dummy runner would create space for Luca Morisi, Mattia Bellini and Matteo Minozzi.

Personally, I would like to see Jayden Hayward promoted to the XV in place of Carlo Canna, as I think that his ability as a fullback still gives him some playmaking ability, but also adds a bit more physicality to help give the midfield more of a presence.


My standout players

Wayne Pivac finds himself in a great place when it comes to selecting scrum halves. Gareth Davies has been a star at the position of late and Rhys Webb is a former British & Irish Lion who will get even better once he is playing regular rugby again. But after his performance this weekend, I think that Pivac should stick with Tomos Williams for the next match. He controlled the game well in his hour on the pitch, but was also a livewire in the loose, and was one unfortunate bounce away from crossing the whitewash himself.

Josh Adams was the top try scorer at the Rugby World Cup and his hat-trick has put him in a great place to take that same award in this tournament. He may not have had many chances to stretch his legs, but he took his opportunities and is becoming a permanent fixture in the starting XV.

Finally, I want to take a moment to look at Nick Tompkins. As an England fan, I was gutted to see England ignore him and so happy to see his quality noticed by the Wales coaches. He came off the bench for a brief cameo in the first half and in that time managed to win a turnover and unleash Leigh Halfpenny (to set up Josh Adams’ opener) with a pass that looked simple but would not be as easy to execute in the moment. Coming back on later in the game, he proved that the strong start was not a fluke as he immediately looked like someone with 20+ caps to his name, slotting in comfortably at both 12 & 13 and deservedly scoring on his debut. While George North performed admirably at 13, I think the back line looked better with Topkins involved and would love to see him promoted to the starting XV next week.

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

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

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

England

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

France

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

Ireland

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

Italy

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

Scotland

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

Wales

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


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

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

Six Nations 2020: The England Squad

Six Nations 2020: The England Squad

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

England’s 34-man squad

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

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

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

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

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

Fly Half: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jacob Umaga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think of the squad?


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

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

The RWC2019 Debrief: Wales

The RWC2019 Debrief: Wales

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

And so we reach the end of the list. Last – but certainly not least (except for England v Wales banter purposes) – we will look at Wales.

RWC2019 Qualification

Finishing 2ⁿᵈ in Pool A at RWC2015 secured Wales’ automatic qualifying spot for the 2019 tournament alongside knocking out cross-border rivals England.

2019 Form

Wales kicked off the year in the best way possible, winning their first Six Nations Grand Slam – their first Championship victory since 2019. Their warm-up matches were not so successful, however, as they narrowly beat England at home but lost heavily at Twickenham, before losing home and away to Ireland. In these matches, the lack of big ball carriers in the forwards and also their limited strength at the scrum were heavily exploited, while they also lost starting fly half Gareth Anscombe to a serious knee injury that will see him miss the entire 2019/20 season.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (1ˢᵗ in Pool D)
    • Wales 43-14 Georgia
    • Australia 25-29 Wales
    • Wales 29-17 Fiji
    • Wales 35-13 Uruguay
  • Quarterfinal
    • Wales 20-19 France
  • Semifinal
    • Wales 16-19 South Africa
  • Bronze Final
    • New Zealand 40-17 Wales

Could Wales have had a much better order of matches? Having Georgia as their opening match meant that they would have a physical challenge to get them up and running in the tournament, but also a match that should still be a safe enough win. And that is exactly what the match ended up being as Wales scored 3 tries in the opening quarter but had to deal with a fightback from the Lelos at the start of the second half. Jonathan Davies was running some great attacking lines and Gareth Davies was looking very dangerous as Wales clinically finished the chances they created. Notably, Hadleigh Parkes suffered a broken hand in this match but continued to play, and would play the rest of the tournament with this injury, which somewhat limited his effectiveness.

Next up was the match that (following 2 early losses for Fiji) would decide the group. Wales put in a huge performance against the Wallabies, with 2 first half tries backed up by a massively impressive defensive performance. Gareth Davies dominated Will Genia, continually reading the play and making interceptions, scoring one of the tries off this, while Aaron Wainwright was a huge presence in the back row with his high intensity play and turnovers. Special mention must also go to Rhys Patchell, who had to come on early as a concussion replacement for Dan Biggar but adapted well to the game despite not being as defensively solid usually as the man he had replaced. Fiji presented a massive challenge and Wales can certainly consider themselves lucky that some decisions went their way, including a 7ᵗʰ minute yellow card for Ken Owens for a tackle that was clumsy at best, dangerous at worst. Josh Adams started poorly in defense but recovered well to score a crucial hattrick, while Gareth Davies put in another strong all-round performance as Wales finally pulled away entering the final quarter. Finally, against Uruguay, Wales rested a number of starters and it showed, as a number of try-scoring opportunities were wasted – Hallam Amos notably having an entire hattrick chalked off.

Going into the knockouts, Wales were dealt an early blow with Jonathan Davies failing a late fitness test before the quarterfinal against France, leading tot he far less experienced Owen Watkin coming in at 13. Things got even worse in the first half as Josh Navidi suffered a tournament-ending injury 27 minutes in, and his replacement Ross Moriarty was shown a yellow card for a high tackle just minutes after coming on. Wales were creating little in attack but putting in a strong defensive performance with Gareth Davies and Aaron Wainwright again the standout players, but Wales produced very little in attack even after France went down to 14 players for Sébastien Vahaamahina’s elbow on Wainwright, and it took a mistake from France on their own line to give Wales the victory.

Against South Africa, Wales’ injury woes continued as they lost Tomas Francis and George North in the first half. In one of the most boring games of the tournament, both teams tried to play defensive, territory-based rugby, while Dan Biggar and Handré Pollard traded kicks at goal, both finishing perfect. In the end, the superior strength of the Springboks pack won out and gave Pollard the chance to kick the winning penalty with just 4 minutes remaining. This loss set them up for a match against the All Blacks with 3ʳᵈ place at stake, but the Welsh injuries (from both before and during the tournament) left them unable to compete with a New Zealand team that was able to bring in the quality of Reiko Ioane and Ben Smith as fresh options. While Josh Adams continued to impress on the wing and Rhys Patchell brought a great attacking game, but ultimately the defence had no answer for the All Blacks and Warren Gatland’s time as Wales head coach ended with a loss.

Looking Ahead

This is a big moment for Wales as they move on from Warren Gatland, with Wayne Pivac and a new stable of coaches taking over. Pivac has done good work with the Scarlets, bringing rugby that is not just attractive but also successful, so I have big hopes as a rugby fan (but not as an Englishman) that this continues with Wales.

As if a change of coaching staff wasn’t enough, we have probably seen a number of big names in the squad play their last World Cup game, with Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Bradley Davies, Aaron Shingler, Hadleigh Parkes, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and Justin Tipuric all in the 30s at the start of the 2019 tournament. The good news is that there is a spine there of experience that is slightly younger, while the next generation is already starting to come through in Adam Beard, Ellis Jenkins, Aaron Wainwright, Rhys Carré, Owen Lane and (potentially soon) Louis Rees-Zammit, while newly-eligible Willis Halaholo and Johnny McNicholl and Rhys Webb (who is returning to Wales in the summer) will also add some real quality and depth to the back line.

The important thing for Wales now is to find a balance. The back line has often been maybe too defensive under Gatland, without enough big carriers in the pack to back this up. Wales now need to try bringing in some bigger carriers in the pack, while also getting a better balance in the back line between attack and defence, something that I think Pivac will be able to do.

It may take a while – especially with Anscombe missing this season and Taulupe Faletau only just returning from injury – but i expect big things from Wales int he coming years.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Uruguay

The RWC2019 Debrief: Uruguay

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

In my penultimate post in this series, I will be looking at Uruguay.

RWC2019 Qualification

Following Canada’s aggregate loss to the USA for the Americas 1 spot, they faced Uruguay in the Americas Repechage play-off. Uruguay won both legs 29-38 and 32-31 to win the Americas 2 spot.

2019 Form

Uruguay finished 2ⁿᵈ in the Americas Rugby Championship, with a loss at Argentina XV but wins against the other 4 nations. They then took part in the Nations Cup, where a loss to Namibia but wins over Russia and Argentina B saw them emerge top of the pile. For their World Cup warm-up matches, they lost 21-41 to Spain, beat Sudamérica XV 24-20, beat Brazil XV 43-5 and lost to Argentina 24-35.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (5ᵗʰ in Pool D)
    • Fiji 27-30 Uruguay
    • Georgia 33-7 Uruguay
    • Australia 45-10 Uruguay
    • Wales 35-13 Uruguay

When I felt that Fiji would be involved in the first upset of the tournament, I was thinking against Australia rather than Uruguay. Though Fiji came in off a short turnaround and played too loose, full credit must be given to Los Teros for their victory, as they played an open and exciting game and contested everything to stop Fiji building into the match, while Santiago Arata controlled the game well along with Felipe Berchesi, whose accuracy off the tee proved crucial.

Unfortunately, the short turnaround to their match against Georgia hurt them and though Arata continued to control the game and Rodrigo Silva put in a big game on the wing, they could not hold with the power of the Georgians. They fought hard against the Wallabies with flanker Juan Diego Ormaechea fighting for every yard and winger Nicolás Freitas making incisive runs. Though they had a try disallowed for offside, they deservedly finished the match with a try for back row Manuel Diana. Finally against Wales, they put in a monumental defensive performance, with Freitas again starring on the wing and keeping his opposite number quiet throughout.

Though they came away with just the one victory and finished bottom of the pool, this tournament showed a vast improvement from 2015, as they scored twice as many points while conceding the least points ever in their World Cup history (excluding 1999, when they played a game less).

Looking Ahead

This is a good time for Uruguay. Canada’s drop has opened up a spot for them to be one of the top American teams and the win over Fiji will have got them attention, which will hopefully see them getting more chances against higher level opposition. This is also a relatively young team, with just 7 of the squad from this tournament in their 30s, and almost half of the squad will still be in their 20s come the next tournament, so this group have a chance to grow together and look to build on this success.

The key right now for Uruguay’s players is to get regular rugby at a higher level. Uruguay does not have a professional league, so either the union needs to try to get a Major League Rugby franchise, or they need to look to get as many players as possible moving to other leagues. You just need to look at the performances of players like Freitas and Arata, who did not look like they would be out of place in one of the elite leagues! Likewise Berchesi looked like he should be on a team far higher than Fédérale 1, the French 3ʳᵈ tier! It is good to have seen a handful of players picked up by MLR teams and hopefully more will follow in their wake, while it would be great to see the Jaguares look at some players too, though I find this unlikely as it would reduce the space for potential Argentina internationals.

Los Teros are in a strong position right now, and this cycle will be huge for their future.