Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Italy

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Italy

Almost 8 months after the 2020 Six Nations came to an early end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition resumed today with Ireland’s Round 4 match against Italy.

The Italians were the clear underdogs going into the game but had the brighter start as Seb Negri burs through the defence and into the 22 before passing to Marcello Violi. The scrum half was brought down just short of the line, but a cynical penalty from his opposite number Conor Murray saw the Munsterman sent to the sin bin, while debutant fly half Paolo Garbisi bisected the posts with the penalty. The Irish soon hit back though and a series of phases on the Italian line saw CJ Stander cross for the opening try despite them still being a man down, Jonathan Sexton nailing the converson and a penalty soon after. Like last night’s match between Scotland and Georgia, the game soon settled into a tense affair for the rest of the opening half hour, until Leinster wing Hugo Keenan was sent over in the corner for a try on debut. It looked like he had another just moments later after being set up by a great counterattacking run from fullback Jacob Stockdale, but the try was ruled out for an obstruction by James Ryan that allowed Stockdale to break through the defensive line. The Italians used the resultant penalty to set themselves in the Irish 22, but after Caelan Dorris won a turnover at the breakdown, the Irish countered and Keenan won the chase of Conor Murray’s kick for his second try of the game, Sexton kicking the extras for a 24-3 halftime score.

The Azzurri tightened things up at the start of the second half and began to get more possession, but still struggled to make anything of it, but when Ireland got the ball back, Sexton found his miss pass intercepted by Edoardo Padovani, who dotted down under the posts. The Irish soon hit back, with a driving maul resulting in a try on debut for flanker Will Connors, while Sexton crashed over for another try just minutes later to ensure the win was guaranteed with 15 minutes remaining. The Irish knew that they were set to go top of the table with this result, but with a trip to France still to come, it was important to score every point they could, and after turning over the ball deep in the Italian half, they spread the ball while to put Bundee Aki over in the corner, before scoring their 7ᵗʰ try entering the final minute as a rolling maul propelled Dave Heffernan over the line. Replacement fly half Ross Byrne chose to take a quick conversion to force the restart in the hopes of 1 more try, but this ended up proving costly as the Irish knocked on the high ball and after a number of phases in midfield, Garbisi broke through a gap and made it over for a consolation try, kicking the conversion for a final score of 50-17.

Looking to the future

One look at today’s Italy line-up – or the wider squad as a whole – will tell you that Franco Smith is already looking ahead to RWC2023 by selecting a younger and less experienced squad who will be coming into their prime com the World Cup. Fullback Jayden Hayward was the only player in the 23 in his 30s (with Leonardo Ghiraldini the only other one in the wider squad), while 7 of the 23 involved were 24 or younger, including 20-year-old fly half Garbisi. I also wouldn’t have been surprised to see 19-year-old scrum half Stephen Varney involved in the game following some scintillating displays for Gloucester since the restart, only for him to suffer a positive COVID-19 test.

There is the short-term risk that this lack of experience may make it harder for Italy to win games, but these players are coming in off some success with the U20s and improving performances from the Pro14 franchises, so this freshness may actually turn out to be exactly what the team needs right now. If nothing else though, they will be an experienced unit come 2023 and the World Cup.

Crash ball Canna

Carlo Canna is a talented fly half and playmaker. What he is not is an obvious pick to be a crash ball 12, and yet that is how he sees himself being used by Franco Smith. Fair play to Canna, he puts in the effort in this role, but (as you would expect) it is with limited success. This leads to Italy having to play with a deep line in order to try to make it to the outside, but when they are then caught in midfield, they are in danger due to most of their players now being ahead of the ball.

Italy have some wonderful ball carriers, especially in the forwards, and yet it is so rare to see them getting a chance to run at the defence outside 1or 2 men from the breakdown, where the defence is still tightly grouped so a line-break is unlikely. You just need to see Jake Polledri running riot for Gloucester or Seb Negri’s break in the opening minutes of this game to see just how dangerous this team can be if they are playing the right way.

Franco Smith needs to make a decision what he wants at 12. If he wants a second playmaker to help take the pressure off Garbisi, then he needs to have the forwards getting the ball in wider positions and have the blindside winger and Luca Morisi attacking the line more often. And if he wants his 12 to be a North to South runner, then he needs to change the personnel he is selecting.

Back row balance

Ireland went for a very different looking back row for this match, but it looked highly effective and I would not be surprised to see them go for something similar again.

While CJ Stander remained at 8, he was given some carrying support by playing Caelan Doris at 6. What is great about this pairing is that they are both different styles of carrier, with Stander making the hard yards from a high number of carries (74m from 21 carries – just over 3.5 metres per carry) while Doris is more of an effective carrier in open play (6 carriers for 33m – 5.5 metres per carry).

More than that, though, the selectin of Will Connors at 7 seemed to suggest that Andy Farrell knew he had plenty of turnover specialists throughout the team, so instead brought in a player who, much like Dan Lydiate used to do for Wales, would just tackle all day long, allowing players like Stander, Doris, Cian Healy and Tadhg Beirne to get in over the ball and make the turnover.

There will of course be tougher tests than Italy, but I think that Ireland should test this balance again in their upcoming matches.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Round 3 of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Twickenham with the visit of Ireland. Andy Farrell’s men came in off the back of a great performance against Wales, but soon found themselves behind after they failed to deal with a Ben Youngs grubber, gifting George Ford a try. Issues with England’s kicking game continued and led to a try for Elliot Daly, while in attack, they rarely looked dangerous, going in 17-0 down at half time. Things evened out a little in the second half, with Robbie Henshaw soon crashing over for a try, but England’s pack and backs bundled Luke Cown-Dickie over the line from 5 metres out to secure the win. A late try for Andre Porter giving the score a bit more respectability, with John Cooney kicking the conversion to bring an end to the game, England emerging 24-12 winners to become the only team still capable of winning the Triple Crown.

England

Does Eddie Jones actually understand what a number 8 does? With Billy Vunipola missing the tournament through injury, many – myself included – were shocked at the lack of a specialist number 8 in the squad for the tournament, especially given the form of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds. With Ben Earl in incredible form for Sarries and having experience across the back row, I assumed that he was being given the shot at 8, but that chance has instead gone to Tom Curry, who has started all 3 games at the position.

Now fair play to Curry, he has looked better at the position by the week, but he is still not a specialist number 8 and it is clearly limiting the team’s options, as England have barely used the number 8 pick-up option over the first 3 rounds of the tournament, especially in an attacking sense. With England putting themselves in a comfortable position at the hour mark, it was surely time to let Ben Earl show what he could do at the position. Instead, he as kept on the bench for almost another 10 minutes and the number 8 role went to… Charlie Ewels! Certainly he added some heft to the back of the scrum, but again his inclusion at the position is limiting the effectiveness of the England scrum.

Right now, I can’t even begin to imagine how demoralising it must be for Earl and even more so for Simmonds, Dombrandt and Zach Mercer to see that the national team’s head coach will prioritise players with no/limited experience at the position even at club level over players who are putting in starring performances at the position week in, week out.

How many more players will we see thrown in at number 8 ahead of a specialist? Hopefully none, but this is Eddie Jones we’re talking about. If he is to try one more though, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ellis Genge – just imagine the destruction he would cause picking up from the base of a scrum!

Ireland

When the game is collapsing around you and everything is going wrong, you turn to your stars and leadership group on the field. But what if they are the ones causing the problem? What were they bringing to the team in this match?

  • Conor Murray looked horribly off form. His famed kicking game was woefully wayward and gifting England possession in good areas, while he could not up the pace enough to catch out the England defensive line
  • Jonathan Sexton looked anything but a former World Rugby Player of the Year. His inability to deal with a grubber into the dead ball area gifted George Ford a try, his kicking at goal was so horribly shanked to the left I was left wondering if he was seeing double and his control of the back line was best summed up with him slipping on his butt when missing a boot
  • CJ Stander’s biggest impacts in the game were the ones he made with his right hand on Owen Farrell. Yes there was provocation from Farrell, but Stander was lucky not to be penalised
  • Cian Healy (whose impact was limited by an early injury) and Tadhg Furlong were overpowered by the English pack
  • James Ryan was more noticeable for his torpedoing into breakdowns and his picking fights than he was for any actual rugby

That just isn’t good enough from a set of key players. I have been arguing that John Cooney should have been the starting scrum half all tournament, and he clearly improved the team dynamic after he came on, upping the pace to help them get behind the defence, while he as also nailed his only attempted kick at goal, a much more difficult one than one of Sexton’s missed kicks. Likewise, Caelan Doris added something late on with his carrying, making more metres per carry than anyone else in the Irish pack.

This has to be the moment when Andy Farrell moves on from some of Joe Schmidt’s stalwarts and brings in the new blood that can help the team moving forward. Will he make the swaps, or will he continue to show faith with the tried and tested players?


My standout players

As I mentioned above, John Cooney‘s introduction certainly improved the Irish performance during the second half, which should now begin his time in the 9 shirt, while Bundee Aki but in a strong defensive performance, making 10 tackles and causing issues at the breakdown, while carrying hard to try and create a platform.

For England, Manu Tuilagi‘s big hits and bigger carries set England up to dominate the game, while Man of the Match Courtney Lawes appeared to carry harder than usual, looking more at home in the 6 shirt. Similar to Gaël Fickou yesterday, I think that Jonathan Joseph put in a strong performance out of position on the left wing, with some good sniping runs in attack, while he also benefited from not really being tested by the Irish kicking game. For the last 2 picks, I’d still prefer an actual back row and winger to play the positions, but their performances today deserved recognition.

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: 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: 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.


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The RWC2019 Debrief: Ireland

The RWC2019 Debrief: Ireland

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.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Ireland.

RWC2019 Qualification

Ireland automatically qualified by topping Pool D at RWC2015, a tournament that saw them go out at the quarterfinals.

2019 Form

After looking so strong in 2018, things started going wrong almost straight away this year, with a number of their big names looking far from their best. They were manhandled by England at home to start off the Six Nations, where they eventually finished 3rd after wins against France, Scotland and Italy.

In the World Cup warm-up matches, they were again manhandled by England, but beat Italy and did the business against Wales both at home and away, with their pack in particular coming on strong at he set piece.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (2nd in Pool A)
    • Ireland 27-3 Scotland
    • Japan 19-12 Ireland
    • Ireland 35-0 Russia
    • Ireland 47-5 Samoa
  • Quarterfinal
    • New Zealand 46-14 Ireland

I think it’s safe to call this a pretty mixed tournament for Ireland. Coming into the tournament, I felt that the opener against Scotland would be the pool decider. Maybe Ireland thought so too as they came out the gates hard. The forwards were too physical for Scotland to deal with and the backs took advantage of the space they were creating to dominate the game.

They seemed unable to reach the same heights in their next match, however. Taking on hosts Japan, they started strongly in the first half hour, but faded off as they found themselves unable to sufficiently break down an impressive Japanese defence and struggled to cope with an attack that kept possession and played a high tempo, with Joey Carbery eventually kicking the ball out at the end to preserve a losing bonus point rather than push for a win. A 5-try victory over Russia felt better than they deserved as they lacked creativity on the whole against one of the lowest-ranked teams in the tournament, though they did a good job to stay defensively solid and keep a clean sheet. Against Samoa, they took a big lead early on with 3 tries in the first quarter, which set them up well against a poor Samoa team to hold on for a victory despite losing Bundee Aki to a red card after 30 minutes, dominating possession and territory.

The Scotland match aside, there was very little to suggest they were hitting form going into the knockouts, and sadly for Irish fans, that proved the case. Against New Zealand, it’s hard t even suggest there were 2 teams in the game as they were thoroughly outclassed by the defending champions. Ireland didn’t turn up at all in the opening 40 minutes and it could be argued that it wasn’t until Jordan Larmour and Joey Carbery replaced Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton  respectively that the Ireland attack appeared to have any teeth… too late to do anything more than give Joe Schmidt a little consolation in his final match coaching the team.

Looking Ahead

Ireland are in a very interesting position right now. With the 4 provinces all looking good, and with the IRFU’s player management policy, there is plenty of talent coming through to add to the stars already at the top of the game. Already in this squad, there are established players like Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Tadhg Furlong, Luke McGrath, Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale who are already incredible talents but are arguably still to hit their peak.

The interesting thing will be at the other end of the age scale. Rory Best has hung up his boots, which will make space for the other great talents at the position. It’s hard to imagine Sexton or Kearney carrying on much longer as they head into their mid-thirties, so now would be the perfect time to move on to the younger talents who are pushing through.

Even if they are not moved on immediately, I think that too many of Ireland’s 2018 stars were being picked on the strength of their name in 2019, so players like Sexton, Kearney, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls and Conor Murray need to earn their spots in the squad with so much depth behind them. Will new head coach Andy Farrell stick with the tried and trusted for his Six Nations, or will he start looking to the future straight away and building a squad with a view to glory in 2023? We’ll find out in a couple of months.

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool A

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool A

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

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


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Who are you looking out for during the tournament? Today, we’ll start with a look at Pool A:

Ireland

Ireland were not the easiest team to pick a lesser-known player to look at here, as the majority of their regular starters are now so well established in international rugby. Eventually I settled on a player that regular readers will already know I am a big fan of. Tadhg Beirne was a star in the Scarlets squad and has carried on that form since moving to Munster. With Devin Toner and James Ryan having formed a regular partnership, injury harmed Beirne’s chances of forcing himself into the starting XV during the Six Nations but he is a dangerous runner in the loose and with decent game time he has a good chance of topping the turnover charts in a match.

Scotland

There were a few players I could have picked for Scotland, with honourable mentions going to Jamie Ritchie, Sam Johnson and Blair Kinghorn, but the pick here goes to Darcy Graham. The Edinburgh wing only made his Scotland debut against Wales in November, but has impressed with 5 tries in 7 appearances. With a good blend of pace and power, I expect him to be part of their ideal back 3 and think he can keep his scoring record going through the tournament.

Japan

Michael Leitch is the big name in this squad but his back row partner Amanaki Mafi also deserves a mention. While off-field issues have blighted his time with Bath and the Melbourne Rebels, he is a quality player and with 9 tries in 24 Tests, he will be looking to shine in this tournament. If Japan want to qualify for the knockouts, they need players like him at the top of their game.

Russia

This will likely be a last World Cup for many of the big named in the Russian back line, including 32-year-old Vladimir Ostroushko. A name that may be familiar to fans of the World Rugby Sevens Series, he will bring experience to the back line and also cause real damage to a team that gives him too much space. With 25 tries from 47 games, he could be key in their matches against Japan and Samoa.

Samoa

When looking through the Samoa squad, the name that stuck out to me was that of Chris Vui. The Bristol skipper was probably one of the best locks in the Premiership last season but still went somewhat under the radar due to the incredible performances of some of his teammates. Able to cover lock or the back row, Vui brings a great blend of strength, mobility and ball-handling skills to stand out from the crowd.


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Eyes On: Ireland v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Ireland v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Ireland and Wales faced off at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon in their final warm-up match ahead of the Rugby World Cup. With Joe Schmidt’s tenure as Ireland head coach finishing ending in Japan, this was his last game on Irish soil and it had a fairytale ending. Rob Kearney put the hosts ahead with a try, but Hadleigh Parkes’ try and 5 points from Leigh Halfpenny’s boot gave Wales a 7-10 lead. The second half could only be described as a siege as it felt like the entire 40 minutes was spent in the Welsh 22, with Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan crossing to give Ireland a 19-10 victory that earned them the #1 spot in the World Rankings for the first time in their history.

Ireland

Devin Toner’s omission from the Irish squad was understandable given the depth in the Irish second row and his own drop in form, but it was also a surprise for one big reason: Ireland’s lineout has been anything but secure this year. Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell are all highly impressive players, but they have struggled to get consistency when throwing in.

You can imagine that if Paul O’Connell had hair, he would be ripping it out watching recent matches; the lineout used to be such a weapon for Ireland, but it currently feels as likely to hurt them as it does their opponent. The set piece is such a vital piece of international rugby and losing the ball on your own throw as regular as Ireland have been is a big worry. They may be able to get away with it int heir pool, but it could prove costly against Scotland and will certainly be an issue if they make it to the knockouts and have to take on either New Zealand or South Africa.

Wales

Wales have a fantastic defence, but even the best of defences will be breached a couple of times if not given a break. In the second half against Ireland, Wales could not stop defending because they could not get any significant time on the ball. This match highlighted the big worry with the Wales squad that may prove costly int he World Cup: they lack carriers in the pack.

When you watch teams like England, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, France and Australia, they all have a number of forwards who will carry over and over again and regularly make at least a metre or 2 to keep the team going forwards. Even Italy are starting to get this with players like Jake Polledri and Seb Negri. Wales seriously lacked that in this match. Their pack (both starters and replacements) combined for a measly 30 metres, which was only 4 more than Josh van der Flier made on his own. It is this lack of carriers that made the omissions of Samson Lee and Rob Evans even more of a surprise as they are comfortable taking the ball in hand.

Phil, Gez and I all had Wales making it to the semifinals and eventually finishing 3ʳᵈ when we made our predictions for the tournament. If they don’t get their forwards carrying more, they will be lucky to make it past the quarterfinals.


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Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After a week off, Wales were back to competing with a World Cup warm-up match against Ireland. With Warren Gatland’s tenure finishing after the World Cup, this was his last game at the Principality Stadium, but his second string squad found themselves 3-15 down to an experimental Irish side at halftime, courtesy of a brace from Jacob Stockdale. A penalty try while Wales were down to 14 men saw Ireland extend the lead, before tries from Owen Lane and Rhys Patchell closed the gap to the eventual final score of 17-22. This result will see New Zealand take the #1 spot in the World Rugby rankings back, with Wales dropping back to 2ⁿᵈ.

Wales

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Tomas Francis, but in this match, he was seriously missed! Wales weren’t just second-best at the scrum, they were dominated! Leon Brown found himself up against a tighthead who was playing loosehead, but was still penalised at the majority of scrums, leading to him being given a yellow card after just 12 minutes on the pitch. Samson Lee came back on while Brown was in the bin, but even he couldn’t rectify the situation, while Rob Evans didn’t really fare any better on the other side. With such a dominance at the scrum, it was no surprise to see Ireland awarded the penalty try.

I understand at the moment there is a focus from many coaches to find front props who are dangerous in the loose, but the set piece is still a key component of the game. With the Australian scrum looking dangerous of late and the Georgians known for their forward dominance, Wales need to sort out their scrum quickly if they want to advance to the latter stages in Japan.

Before I move on, I just want to address Wales’ substitution during the yellow card period. With Brown going off, Wales had to sacrifice a player to bring Samson Lee back onto the field in order to complete the front row. Despite the scrum struggling, Wales chose to remove flanker James Davies. This meant that Wales were occasionally packing down with 7 men, or bringing in centre Owen Watkin on the flank. While Watkin did an admirable job, it was clear he had no idea what he was meant to be doing and for that reason, I don’t understand why he wasn’t removed (or one of the wingers) and Davies left on, which would have given the scrum more cohesion. I can understand no wanting to go a man down in the back line, but they were doing that anyway by putting Watkin into the scrum, while Davies is a highly mobile player and has high level experience of playing rugby 7s. He has even played the majority of a game on the wing for a 14-man Scarlets team. If I was looking for someone to be a hybrid flanker/centre/wing, then I would pick Davies over any of the backs on the pitch.

Ireland

The old adage is that “form is temporary, class is permanent”. Jacob Stockdale proved that over the last 2 weeks. The Ulster winger shot onto the international scene with his regular try-scoring exploits, but has gone through a somewhat fallow period. With the Irish inside defence not working well last week, Stockdale came in for criticism for flying up to try the man-and-ball tackle when facing the overlap. This week, he looked much better defensively as Ireland dealt with the Welsh attack and looked much more confident in attack. Andrew Conway could have probably finished the first try himself, but Stockdale did the right thing to get up in support and was given the chance to get on the scoresheet, while his second try was a great opportunistic moment as he picked up the loose pass from Aaron Shingler and outpaced the turning Welsh defence to score. Every time he carried in this match, he looked dangerous and it appears he may be getting back to top form at just the right time.

RWC2019 Winner & Losers

While I didn’t think Jarrod Evans had a poor game in the first half, the impact that Rhys Patchell had after coming on at halftime was immense. He controlled the game well and appeared to expand the attack, including scoring one of the tries himself. Able to cover 10 or 15, he has to make it onto the plane off the back of this performance, though whether than is instead of or as well as Evans is a matter for debate. If we assume that Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Liam Williams and Josh Adams are all guaranteed spots on the plane, it is likely that the back 3 in this match were competing for a maximum of 2 places. Owen Lane has had a horrible luck with injuries ruling him out of making his debut until this match, but he performed very well, looking decent on defence and having a good impact on the attack, including the first try. Moving over to the men in green, Dave Kilcoyne looked one of the best players on the pitch until he was removed, making a huge impact in open play both offensively and defensively. His replacement at loosehead, Andrew Porter, was unstoppable at the scrum, causing no end of problems for Leon Brown and Samson Lee. Usually a tighthead, this proof of his versatility may have just guaranteed him a place in the squad.

Staying in the front row for a moment, Leon Brown‘s torrid time in the scrums and lack of impact to make up for it around the park may have just seen him miss out on a place in the Welsh squad. With Aaron Shingler’s return to fitness, James Davies‘ removal during Brown’s sin bin period suggests that he will miss out on a spot in a Welsh back row that is still deep despite injuries to Taulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins. For Ireland, Devin Toner‘s chances of making the squad may rely on the competency of World Rugby an the citing officer after a challenge reminiscent of that which earned Scott Barrett a red card and 4-week ban. With Peter O’Mahony looking equally good at 7 as 6 and Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson both able to cover 6 and lock, it may be that Jordi Murphy will find himself surplus to requirements when Joe Schmidt names his squad.


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Eyes On: England v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

As we speed towards the beginning of the Rugby World Cup, Ireland made the trip to London for their 2ⁿᵈ warm-up match against an England side that had faced off against Wales home and away in the preceding weeks. Such is the state of the World Rugby rankings, a win would see the Irish take the top spot from Wales for the first time in their history, despite a poor Six Nations. However despite taking an early lead through Jordan Larmour, tries from Joe Cokanasiga, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi gave England a 26-10 lead, before a further 5 tries in the second half resulted in a comfortable 57-15 victory.

England

Eddie Jones has (rightly, in my opinion) come in for plenty of questions and criticisms over the last couple of seasons. Following this match, there may be more coming his way. Ben Youngs’ form has been questionable both for club and country over the last year, yet he has continued to not only be picked by Eddie Jones, but be picked as the clear starter! Against Ireland, he had an awful match. His kicks were often off target so that Ireland could take the ball uncontested, a poor pass in open play brought an end to an overlap on halfway and a series of 3 bad passes slowed down and eventually ended a promising attack that had made it into the Irish 22. The last of these passes was exceptionally awful as he took the ball, held the pass before deliberately playing it into a retreating Cian Healy to try and win a penalty for offside (cynical play that I hate seeing) despite there not even being an offside line due tot he ball having been offloaded out of the tackle. Willi Heinz’s introduction was a positive for England as his first touch of the ball saw him put in a contestable box kick that allowed Manu Tuilagi to smash Jordan Larmour the moment he landed with the ball, while many of his actions felt much more accurate.

Heinz has the playing style to be the starter at the World Cup, but he has just 3 caps to his name compared to Youngs’ 90 Test caps (88 for England, 2 for the Lions), which makes me think it is highly unlikely the Gloucester captain is given the starting spot in the big games, despite being clearly the form option. Given how quickly Danny Care fell down the pecking order after a couple of bad matches, it is hard to understand how Youngs looks set to start at the World Cup while players like Danny Care, Ben Spencer and Dan Robson watch on from home.

Ireland

The Irish have been very lucky with the way the World Cup pools feel together as they look very beatable at the moment. They are usually so solid in defence, but in this match were finding it almost impossible to stop the men in white. Time and time again, England found themselves with an overlap and took advantage of Jacob Stockdale often shooting out to try and stop the attack with a man-and-ball tackle rather than holding back to try taking away the space.

While I think part of this was from the team often defending from out to in, I think part of it as well was due to not dealing with the England players earlier in the move. With playmakers at 10 and 12, a physical presence at 13, a ball-player at 15 and 2 wingers who are happy to come into midfield for England, not to mention a pack full of willing carriers, the Irish were just finding themselves overwhelmed in midfield and this was leading to them getting caught too narrow as they tried to plug the gaps in the middle.

With most top teams now playing with at least 2 playmakers in the back line, Ireland need to find a way to shore up their midfield defence while not compromising themselves out wide, otherwise they could find themselves still in search of a first World Cup semifinal in 4 years’ time.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

With second row being a position of depth for Ireland, a couple of turnovers – including one as an England lineout transitioned into a maul – will have helped Iain Henderson make his case for inclusion in the squad. The struggles in the lineout over this match (Rory Best and Sean Cronin completed only 10 of their 15 lineouts in this match) could have just opened up a spot in the squad for Munster’s Niall Scannell, either as a 3ʳᵈ choice hooker or instead of Cronin if Joe Schmidt chooses to take only 2 hookers.

With the forwards struggling to sufficiently impose themselves on the game, it was a hard day for Ross Byrne and I think that his best chance of making the squad will be as a 3ʳᵈ fly half if Joey Carbery fails to recover in time. Meanwhile, the sight of Cian Healy leaving the field just before half time will certainly have the selectors nervous.


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