Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

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

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

England

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

France

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

Ireland

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

Italy

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

Scotland

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

Wales

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


You can find all the details on my announcement.

Visit my JustGiving page for updates or if you would like to donate.

Help me to change the face of men’s health!

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

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

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

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

Pride

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

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

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

Expect to see this team continue to build in 2023.

The answer?

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

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

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


You can find all the details on my announcement.

Visit my JustGiving page for updates or if you would like to donate.

Help me to change the face of men’s health!

Movember_Iconic Mo_Black

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v Australia

The second weekend jam-packed with Autumn Nations Series action kicked off in Florence as Italy hosted Australia. The Azurri were coming into the match off the back of a big win against Samoa, but were forced into a late change as Paolo Garbisi was ruled out with a hip injury, with Tommaso Allan taking over at fly half, and it took just 86 seconds for hi to open the scoring with a penalty after the Wallabies failed to secure the kickoff. Australia were fielding a highly-changed side from their last-gasp loss in France, and after a clever lineout move saw Will Skelton carry hard up to the line, Italy held out over a series of phases at the expense of an easy penalty for Noah Lolesio to even the scores. Allan missed his next kick at goal, but Italy just looked to keep coming each time they got the ball, and when Monty Ioane released Allan down the wing, the fly half was illegally impeded by Jake Gordon as he chipped on, resulting in a yellow card for the scrum half and a kick to the corner for the Azzurri, and as they looked to go wide, Tom Wright just managed to cover Ange Capuozzo’s grubber to the corner before the arrival of Pierre Bruno, though it came at the expense of another 5m lineout, which came infield to create a blind side for Italy to attack, with Luca Morisi’s looped pass sending Bruno over in the corner. And when Will Skelton was turned over just as the sin bin period was about to expire, Italy burst en masse down their right wing, creating an overlap that sent Capuozzo over for the try, Allan adding both conversions to make it a 14-point powerplay. A high tackle from Federico Ruzza gave Australia possession in the hosts’ 22, and after going through the hard phases, Lolesio’s wide pass allowed Tom Wright to dive over in the corner. As the clock ticked down on the half, both teams continued trying to go at each other, but both defences held firm and the teams went in at the break with Italy leading 17-8.

The Wallabies started the second half carrying more directly, and when Fraser McReight went over for the try, Lolesio was able to cut the deficit to 2 points with his conversion, while Allan soon struck back with a penalty of his own, while missing his next attempt. But just after the hour, a clever backs move after a lineout deep in Australian territory saw Capuozzo sent over for his second try of the game and a 10-point lead. A handling error at an Italian lineout saw Taniela Tupou turn the ball over, and he and Ned Hanigan sent replacement prop Tom Robertson over in the corner just moments after he inexplicably escaped a yellow card for a late hit on Tommaso Allan—which ended the Italian’s game—and Lolesio’s conversion brought the visitors back within 3 points with 10 minutes remaining. A high tackle from Darcy Swain allowed Allan’s replacement Edoardo Padovani a chance to extend the lead off the tee, but his kick from the 10m line fell well short, however his next kick from closer in with 5 minutes left was struck much better to stretch the lead to 6. The Azzurri were minutes away from making history, but there was time for one more Australian attack, and when Cadeyrn Neville forced his way over out wide on the final play, it all came down to the conversion. Ben Donaldson had only just come on for his debut 5 minutes earlier and now had the chance to save his nations’ blushes, but with all eyes on him, the young Waratahs fly half pushed a tricky kick wide of the far post, leaving the Azzurri to celebrate their first ever victory over the Wallabies, by a score of 28-27.

Onwards and upwards

This is another huge result for Italy and a statement to the rugby community. After ending a long run of losses to Tier 1 nations with victory in Wales at the end of the Six Nations, to now back that up with another Tier 1 scalp inthe summer shows just how far this team has come.

But it is so much more than that. This team performance was miles on from even the start of the 2022 Six Nations. This is a team that was not just dogged in defence, but also dangerous in attack, with big carriers in the pack like Lorenzo Cannone, who was a standout today, a balanced midfield in Morisi and Brex and a back 3 that had a great blend of pace, power and elusiveness. And then you must remember that this team was even missing its first choice fly half in Paolo Garbisi and also Jake Polledri, who continues his return from long-term injury. Even in the very recent past, the team lacked depth, but now it is truly starting to become apparent, and that is a testament to the rebuild Conor O’Shea started during his time in charge.

And now they have the personnel, they can go further. Their attack is not just passing down the line and hoping they can find space ot wide, or hitting one-up runners. This is a team that is creating shape and misdirection with their attacking in line with any Test team.

Granted both this and the Wales win were against weakened suads, but in both cases, it has still been a group of players who are in and around the wider squad on a regular basis, while even these teams would have been putting 50+ points on the Azzurri a few years ago. Now teams have to look at fielding their first string teams, and I don’t think it will be long until we see the Azurri beating one of those.

Consistently inconsistent

This is a dark day for Australia. Yes they may have put out a highly-changed squad, but the majority of these players will be pushing for a spot in the World Cup squad. And yet for much of the game they struggled to create anything of note and were generally outplayed by the hosts. This team should have been strong enough to beat Italy, instead it is just another example of an embarrassing defeat, which completely wipes out last week’s great performance against France.

But what was even worse was the stupid penalties. Jake Gordon’s yellow card was costly and unnecessary, and the final 10 minutes would not have been so close had Robertson been rightly sin binned for his cheap shot on Tommaso Allan, while a number of other players were also penalised for tackle offences.

To me, this suggests that the main issue is with the coaching. With Wales, Fiji and an improving Georgia in their pool, can they afford to continue with these inconsistent performances under Dave Rennie, or do they need to look to move on at head coach and hope that a late change has the same inspired affect that it did when Michael Cheika was brought in as head coach in October 2014, going on to reach the Rugby World Cup final a year later.

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v Samoa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v Samoa

With the Test Window now open, Italy kicked off their Autumn Nations Series in Padua against Samoa. The visitors were given an immediate chance as Christophe Ridley and his crew wrongly adjudged that Michele Lamaro had not attempted a wrap during a low tackle on Danny Toala, and with the Samoans kicking to the corner, but while the visitor’s pressure saw Chris Vui go over for a try, the officials found a knock-on in the build-up to deny it. Both teams were looking to put pressure on the opposition breakdown early on, but the calm head of Stephen Varney dealt with it, and a kick to the corner allowed his chasers to put the pressure on and win a penalty which Tommaso Allan, starting at fullback, kicked with ease for an early lead. In a physical battle, Samoa’s handling was costing them as they tried to attack the defensive line, while Rodney Iona pushed his first penalty attempt to the right of the posts on 17 minutes.Varney continued to control the game with his smart kicks to the corner, and when Italy followed up a driving maul with a backs move, Juan Ignacio Brex successfully hit an angle that took him straight through the defence and over for the opening try. Buoyed by this, the Azzurri were immediately back on the attack from the restart, sweepend round the corner on second phase rather than looking for the clearance kick, which led to an overlap that allowed them to break from their own 22 in numbers and at pace to go the length, with Pierre Bruno the man to touch down. Allan soon added a penalty to stretch the lead to 20-0 just before the half hour. Samoa were still taking on the Azzurri defence but lacked the clinical edge as too many balls went astray, while the next Italian visit to the Samoan 22 saw Nigel Ah Wong sent to the bin for a high tackle on Allan, and after Paolo Garbisi kicked the resulting penalty, the Azzurri took advantage of the extra man to kick a 50-22 off the restart and send Montanna Ioane over for a try on the stroke of half time for a 28-0 lead.

As the second half started, a dropped high ball from Iona gifted the Azurri with a scrum in the 22, and as the wheel encouraged them to go to the blind side, Ioane had the strength to stay in the pitch and dot down as Iona tried tackling him into touch, with Allan nailing the touchline conversion to make it 35-0. With Samoa getting back to a full complement, they were back on the attack, and after a 5m lineout maul crabbed infield, a late look back to the blind side saw D’Angelo Leuila get his arm through the tackle and offload to put his centre partner Ulupano Junior Seuteni over for a try. A knock-on off the restart gifted Italy with a scrum in the 22, and when too many Samoan forwards went to wrap around the breakdown to the open side, Varney hit the ball back to the blind side to put debutant back row Lorenzo Cannone over for a try, with older brother Niccolò the first there to celebrate with him. As the game reached the hour mark, the Samoan line was under siege again, and Paolo Garbisi’s grubber under penalty advantage was deflected straight into the hands of Bruno, who gratefully accepted his second try of the match. Samoa never gave up, though, and as Italy looked to play out from their line with 10 minutes remaining, they turned the ball over out wide in the Azzurri 22 to send debutant Duncan Paia’aua over for a try, and with just a minute left, Theo McFarland was released down the left wing, with the Saracen having just enough strength to fight his way to the line and stretch over for the consolation try and a 49-17 final score that will move Italy above Samoa in the world rankings.

Restarting the attack

One thing that became very noticeable in this game was Italy’s plan to get the game going again when the restart was coming to them.

Usually at the restart, a team would look to clear either immediately or after setting a phase to give a structured platform. Italy however were looking to set up a breakdown in the middle of the field within the middle of the pitch. And at this point, their next phase depended on the defensive set-up. If the defence was well set on both sides, then the Azzurri would look to clear through Varney or Garbisi. However, as with Bruno’s first try, if the defence just expected the clearance and did not sufficiently over either side of the breakdown, the team were ready to wrap around to the lightly defended side late and en masse, creating an overlap that would allow them to break downfield with enough support to go the distance.

It’s a high risk/ high reward tactic, as if it works and they manage to break, they will have a very good chance of going the length as it being a set move means that they have pacey players and people with good handling skills making the break, and plenty of support runners there who are expecting the team to break away. However, there is always the risk in setting up the midfield breakdown of a handling error or giving away some form of turnover or penalty at the breakdown.

Was this just a tactic devised for taking on Samoa, who will not have the same level of defensive organisation as Tier 1 nations? It will be interesting to see if they do the same against Australia next week.

Worrying times

Right now, I’m very worried about Samoan Rugby. The team has hardly played together during this cycle, and that lack of cohesion showed, with Rodney Iona looking bereft of ideas at fly half. While the team clearly has the physicality and there is a clear quality in th team, they need to be playing reglar rugby to get as a team, which will reduce the handling errors, errant passes and lack of defensive organisation. Only 1 year out from the World Cup, they are running out of time, and with a pool that includes England, Argentina, Japan and an impressive Chile team, there is a distinct danger that they not only miss out on a top 3 finish in the pool (automatic qualification for RWC2027) but in fact end the tournament bottom of the pool!

And the worry doesn’t just stop there, as something that is clearly standing out to me is just how many of Seilala Mapusua’s squad are either the wrong side of 30 or in their very late 20s. Very few of these players will be around or in their prime when the next World Cup comes around, so the next cycle will require a massive rebuild… but are the players there? I can’t help worry that we are seeing the slow decline of Samoan rugby, and hope that it can be turned around soon.

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

It feels like only a couple of weeks ago that the 2022 Six Nations was kicking off, and yet we already find ourselves at Super Saturday, the final day of the tournament. This year’s super Saturday kicked off in Cardiff, as Wales faced Italy. Avoiding the Wooden Spoon was mathematically impossible for the Azzurri, but they finally opened the scoring after 13 minutes through a Paolo Garbisi penalty after he was tackled off the ball, while Edoardo Padovani soon added a penalty of his own. An error off the restart gave the Welsh a period of possession in the Italian 22 which they repeatedly failed to exploit, but they finally took advantage of an Italian knock-on to break from deep in their half and stretched the defence to breaking point, allowing Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Dan Biggar converting to put his side ahead on the occasion of his 100ᵗʰ cap. The lead lasted just a matter of minutes though as the Garbisi/Padovani pairing added 2 more penalties just after the half hour mark. As the clock ticked into the red, a strong Italian scrum in the right hand corner earned a penalty advantage and when Johnny McNicholl failed to hold Garbisi’s cross-kick in the air, Owen Watkin just beat Callum Braley to dot down the loose ball, and the Italian decision to go for a lineout with the penalty saw them held out, though they would still go into the break with a 7-12 lead.

Going into the second half and it was the Azzurri who had the first attacks of note, with a timely jackal from Josh Navidi saving them after Italy broke around the fringes with their forwards and a great cover tackler denying Monty Ioane in the corner. Wales finally got some possession, though and after a penalty at the scrum set them up with a 5m lineout, Dewi Lake managed to force himself over, with Biggar again adding the extras to put his side ahead. Things then went crazy as Ange Capuozzo and Monty Ioane chose to counter a kick into their in-goal under pressure, and ended in Danilo Fischetti leading a chase of Michele Lamaro’s kick to earn a penalty for sealing off beneath the posts, which Garbisi duly dispatched to restore the Italian lead. Wales made a umber of substitutions on the hour—including removing Alun Wyn Jones on his return to injury for his 150ᵗʰ cap, and moving Dan Biggar to fullback to allow for Calum Sheedy’s introduction in place of McNicholl—but they were lucky not to find themselves falling even further behind as Padovani’s next penalty drifted to the right of the posts. However the fresh players took their chance as Wales took advantage of a turnover on halfway to put together some phases of quick ball, and when Josh Adams cut back inside he found a gap between 2 tiring forwards to score the third try of the game. With just ten minutes remaining the Welsh appeared to gain so much confidence, and Wyn Jones soon thought he secured the result by crashing over from close range, only for the officials to decide that he was held up over the line by Braam Steyn, who was himself celebrating his 50ᵗʰ cap. With the clock ticking down it looked like another case of “so near but so far” for brave Italy, but with 2 minutes left, Ange Capuozzo found a gap in the kick chase and broke down the right wing, feeding the supporting Padovani to score beneath the posts and allow Garbisi to kick the simplest of conversions as the clock went red, securing a 21-22 victory, their first win on Welsh soil and first Six Nations win since they defeated Scotland in 2015.

While they may have finished the game with 3 tries, this was a poor attacking performance from Wales. Despite quality throughout the team, there did not seem to be much inspiration, and that has been an issue throughout the tournament, regardless of the personnel that Wayne Pivac has selected.

The backs stand too flat and are rushing the ball out to the wings in the hope that they can get around the outside, but either the rushed passes are inaccurate, or the ball is getting to the wings, only for them to find that the defence has drifted across with them. Meanwhile, the forwards are taking the ball standing still too often, which today allowed Italy to dictate the contact too often and put themselves in a position to slow the ball down or force a turnover.

With the World Cup just a year and a half away, this is a crucial moment for the WRU. Do they look to move on from Wayne Pivac, giving his replacement the Summer and Autumn Tests and 2023 Six Nations? Or do they keep faith in the man who coached the Scarlets to Pro12 glory in the 2016/17 season and hope things improve?

Italy

It’s something that I’ve been saying has been coming for a while, but despite Wales having looked shaky all tournament, even I didn’t see the win coming for Italy today. But this is a huge moment for Italian rugby.

While they may have been outscored by 3 tries to 1, the performance from Italy all around the park was huge, and on another day Ioane scores in the corner and they score off the cross kick or following maul just before half time. But while it’s been a long time since their last Six Nations victory, it has been a time of growth from the bottom up. And what shows this most is the quality of player missing today.

Legendary captain Sergio Parisse is gone, but in Michele Lamaro they have a new talisman to lead them through the next 10 years. Jake Polledri—arguably one of the few players who could be considered World Class—is still injured, while his fellow back row Seb Negri has also missed the last couple of games. And yet this has allowed Toa Halafihi a run of games in the number 8 shirt and he has grown into the role. In the backs, the absence of Tommy Allan and Carlo Canna has led to the introduction of Leonardo Marin, while Matteo Minozzi’s absence has led to a run of strong performances by players in the 14 shirt, and now the emergence of Toulouse-bound Ange Capuozzo. And as this all goes on, the U18s and U20s continue to not just be competitive, but win their fair share of games. And that quality will just continue to find its way into the senior squad over the coming years, allowing them to end up with a squad that has quality not just from 1-23, but throughout the wider squad and beyond.

This summer will see the Azzurri face off against USA, Canada and an Argentina team that has just seen head coach Mario Ledesma replaced by Michael Cheika. The timing could not be better for Italy to bounce on and put together a run of wins and potentially beat another Tier 1 nation.

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

The penultimate Saturday of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with Scotland’s trip to Italy. The Italian’s las win in the competition came at Scotland’s expense, and the Azzurri took an early lead through a penalty from Paolo Garbisi. However it was the Scots who got the opening try on 17 minutes after a loose Italian kick allowed them to counter; George Turner broke down the right wing and as his supporting men kept the ball alive, Finn Russell was able to spread the ball wide to send Sam Johnson over in the left corner. Italy soon found themselves on the attack, but Ali Price intercepted Callum Braley’s pass just 5 metres from the Scottish line and broker away with Kyle Steyn, and as the wing ran out of space he chipped back inside for the supporting Chris Harris to finish. The Italians were not deterred by such a blow though, and after Garbisi missed a penalty, a sweeping move to the right saw Pierre Bruno dominate contact with Stuart Hogg and offload back inside to Callum Braley for the try, with Garbisi’s touchline conversion bringing them back within 2 points. However an Ali Price break put the Scots into the Italian 22, and after a head injury forced a stoppage, the Scottish back ran some clever lines to send Harris crashing over for his second, with Russell kicking the conversion for a 10-19 halftime lead.

The game remained close after the break, but the Scotland attack appeared to be growing in confidence, and when an inside pass from Finn Russell put Darcy Graham through just inside the opposition 22, the wing stepped his way over to secure the bonus point. As the hour approached, Italy made a number of changes, but this arguably interrupted their play and as Garbisi missed another penalty, a comeback was looking unlikely. That “unlikely” became “almost certainly not” as Man of the Match Ali Price broke the line on the hour and mad plenty of ground before sending captain Stuart Hogg over in the corner, while Monty Ioane was beaten by the bounce of the ball just minutes later as he ran onto a grubber kick with the line at his mercy. However Italy kept on the pressure and forced another try through Ange Capuozzo, just 22 minutes into his debut off the bench. This score appeared to invigorate them and with 7 minutes left were perhaps unlucky not to get a penalty try as their maul was collapsed just short of the line, but they refused to give up and with the clock 2 minutes into the red, Capuozzo stepped over for another try and a 22-33 final score.

Italy

One player who doesn’t get talked about anywhere near enough in this Italian squad is Monty Ioane. While the 14 shirt has been somewhat a revolving door of players, Ioane has deservedly made the 11 shirt his own.

A strong and willing carrier, he rarely gets the chance to find himself with the ball and clear air in front of him, but he continually still makes metres, with a great combination of strength and footwork to beat defenders and break tackles. Meanwhile in the kicking game he runs his heart out and competes well, while also popping up in the midfield to provide an option to get a move going by taking an inside pass through a gap or to chase a cheeky chip (as we saw from Braley today) if the kick defence is too deep.

At 27 years old, he is in his prime and will benefit as Italy continue to improve as a team, as it will create the space out wide for him to exploit rather than forcing him to make the space himself, and as this next generation of stars comes through from the U18s and U20s, he will be an experienced mentor to take his replacements to even higher levels.

Scotland

This was a big match for Scotland. After a big start to the tournament with victory over England, things have gone downhill and they took a shellacking 2 weeks ago. With stars Jamie Ritchie and Duhan van der Merwe missing, there was always a risk of the Italians becoming a banana skin today.

But the Scots got things right today, going back to their kicking game and relying on the quality of their defence to limit the Italian opportunities, and then taking advantage of any poor Italian kick chases or gaps in the Italian defence with the quality of attackers like Ali Price, Finn Russell, Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg going the length of the field in just seconds.

2 weeks ago, Scotland threw out their gameplan as soo as they found themselves behind… and lost. This week, they stuck with it, and if they continue to do so, they will be a challenge for many teams.

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Italy

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Italy

Round 3 of the 2022 edition of the Six Nations came to an end with a trip to Dublin to see Ireland host Italy. The Irish made a handful of changes with a match against England in the near future, but were soon ahead as an inside pass put Caelan Doris through a hole and his offload found hooker Dan Sheehan, who fed Joey Carbery for the opening try in less than 4 minutes. Italy were soon on the scoreboard after Edoardo Padovani blasted over a penalty from halfway, but found themselves playing a man after less than a quarter of the match down when Epalahame Faiva—on early after an injury to starting hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi—was red carded for a high tackle on Sheehan. A quirk of the rugby laws (that is absolutely bonkers and would be changed immediately if any of the big nations fell afoul of it) means that with nobody else in the Italian 23 able to play hooker, scrums would go uncontested (which must always be 8v8) but the Italians would be down to 13 (taking 2 men off but bringing on 1 replacement front row), and the Irish took advantage of the extra space for Jamison Gibson-Park to score, while fullback James Lowry went over on the half hour from the first phase after a scrum and Peter O’Mahony secured the bonus point just before half time. The Italians kept on fighting though, and Paolo Garbisi kicked a penalty to end the half down 24-6.

It took the Irish attack a while to get going after the break, but finally they got a series of phases of front foot ball and pulled the defense narrow, allowing Gibson-Park to throw a wide pass to James Lowe to cross out wide. With the game over as a competition, the replacements were coming on earlier than usual, and Jonathan Sexton marked his 55ᵗʰ minute introduction by immediately attacking a gap and offloading to Lowry for his second of the day. The Irish continued to struggle to pull away in quite the fashion one would expect, but when Ryan Baird charged down Alessandro Fusco’s box kick, there were no blue shirts in behind to stop him gathering the loose ball and going over for the try. But with just minutes remaining Braam Steyn was carded for a deliberate knock on that saw the Italians down to 12, and the Irish took advantage by going for the scrum and using the 3-man advantage in the back line to put Lowe over for a second try. There was time for another attack which saw Josh van der Flier held up over the line, but with time remaining for the goal line drop-out and a 3-man advantage, the Irish managed to send Kieron Treadwell over for one final try, with Sexton kicking the conversion for a 57-6 victory.

Ireland

Ireland may have earned the bonus point by half time and come away with a comfortable victory, but they should be disappointed with this. With a 2-man advantage for an hour (including 5 minutes at the end with a 3-man advantage), they should have been winning by so much more.

While there were some huge individual performances in the Italian defence, with 2 men less and 3 props on the pitch, there was always going to be space, but Ireland did not do the work to find or create it, and far too often they ended up playing into the Italian pack and getting turned over, forcing the pass once a half-break was made rather than recycling to go again with quick ball, or getting white line fever and going alone when the pass was the better option.

Perhaps even more worrying was that Andy Farrell saw the need to bring Sexton on before the hour with a lead of just 23 points. While there were a couple of unfamiliar combinations out there, I can’t help feel that a team like France or even Ian Foster’s New Zealand would have found a way to turn this into a cricket score with such a numerical advantage.

Italy

A phrase I hear in rugby too often is that red cards ruin games. That is not true at all, but unfortunately this game was ruined as a result of the red card to Hame Faiva. Now I want to make clear first of all that the officials were all spot-on in the decision and did a great job of talking everything through with the teams. Unfortunately, it was a rarely-seen law from World Rugby that saw Italy further punished.

rugby uncontested scrums referee document

As Wayne Barnes details in this video, referees are provided with the above guidelines for when a scrum goes uncontested. Lucchesi’s early injury (he went off cradling his arm after just 5 minutes) is unfortunate as hooker is a specialist position and it is rare that you will have more than 2 trained hookers in a matchday 23. And that means that if anything happens to Hame Faiva in the remaining 75 minutes, Italy will be unable to field a trained hooker.

So when Faiva then went high and gave the referee no choice but to red card him, that is when everything went tits up. With uncontested scrums coming, Italy always had to sacrifice someone for a prop in order to keep the front row unit full of 3 specialist front rows, but per the table above, they also had to lose a second player for the rest of the match. And here is the problem.

The reason for this law makes sense, as the Italian scrum should be penalised for their hooker getting sent off, while this stops a team struggling in the scrum from pretending their last available front row is injured in order to go to uncontested scrums. But does this require 2 players to effectively be sent off? Being forced to field 3 props already harms a defence when you consider that most hookers these days are like an extra back row and super mobile. By the team already having to take a player off for the replacement front row and the numerical advantage in the back line, is this not already creating enough of an advantage for the opposition team? Or perhaps is it time to look at something I have suggested previously about having larger matchday squads (say 30 for example, with 5 or 6 specialist front rows on the bench) but still the same number of replacements allowed per match (or less), which would allow more flexibility so that games are not decided by a team having to play someone out of position…

2022 Six Nations: Italy v England

2022 Six Nations: Italy v England

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations finished off on Sunday with England’s trip to Rome. Eddie Jones’ men were looking to get their campaign back on track after an opening day defeat against Scotland and would certainly have been hoping that the Italian U20’s 6-0 victory on Friday night was not a sign of things to come.

And while the Italians put some pressure on early, it was the visitors who scored first as Max Malins got around the outside of the defensive line and fed the ball back inside for the supporting Marcus Smith, who converted his own try. And the lead was doubled midway through the first half as England got quick ball off a lineout move and went through the phases for Jamie George to go over next to the posts. The Azzurri were being hurt hard by the penalty count, and England were happily taking advantage of the territory, but while England thought they had third try through Maro Itoje after Harry Randall found some space around the fringe of a lineout maul, the TMO found that Nick Isiekwe illegally obstructed in the formation of the maul., while their next attack minutes later saw Ellis Genge get white line fever and knock on as he tried to pick and go for the line. However the visitors did get a try right before the break. Stephen Varney attempted to clear up after a high ball from his opposite number Harry Randall, but his pass went wild and ended up in English hands, and after a clever run from Freddie Steward coming in off the left touchline, the ball was spread wide right to Jamie George, who just had the pace, power and wingspan to reach the corner, Smith converting for a 0-21 halftime lead.

Kyle Sinckler was introduced at the break and this helped the English begin to gain some dominance at the scrum and after a strong scrum in the Italian 22, Marcus Smith held Federico Mori just long enough to release Elliot Daly—onearly following a failed HIA for Jack Nowell—with a flat pass to send him over in the corner to secure the bonus point. What followed was a period of possession and territory for the Azzurri, but they could not find their way over for a try, though Tom Curry was very lucky to avoid a yellow card for cynically killing the ball during one of the Italians’ most successful attacks. However as the replacements came on, England found themselves kicking more and inviting the pressure but held on strong, and when Leonardo Marin fumbled a high ball from Marcus Smith just outside his 22, England quickly exploited it and Kyle Sinckler went over for the try. With just under 10 minutes left, Italy found themselves camped in the English 22 again but a fumble at the back of the scrum ended their attack and gave England just enough time for one more attack, which saw Henry Slade go over but lose possession of the ball as he tried to ground it under pressure from Tiziano Pasquali for a final score of 0-33.

Italy

Italy need to find the balance in the back row, as it’s costing them at the moment. Granted, were everyone available, it is highly likely that the starting trio of Jake Polledri, Seb Negri and captain Michele Lamaro would be the go-to unit. However with Polledri out and Sergio Parisse in the twilight of his career, the focus has been to go to the younger players. Unfortunately, they have struggled to have any real impact on the games.

With Negri on the bench this week, there was a clear lack of carrying from the back row, while Giovanni Pettinelli will have likely wished the ground swallowed him up after fumbling the ball at the base of a crum deep in the English 22. While the answers long term may be making their way up from the U20, in the short term I think that the best answer would be the experience an all-round playing ability of Braam Steyn, who at 29 should still be a part of this squad at least through the World Cup.

England

Make sure you’re sat down before you read this: England actually came out and played rugby this week. With Harry Randall given the 9 shirt, he brought his natural quick game into play, and the speed of ball made it so easy for the pack to batter the Italian defence while the backs had the space for creative players like Smith, Malins and Steward to show their quality.

However things were far from perfect. There were a number of errors from the players, who clearly weren’t used to playing at such a pace, while a better defence like most suspected World Cup quarterfinalists would have would also find themselves catching England isolated or behind the gain line more often. Moreso, the speed and attacking mentality disappeared the moment Harry Randall was removed, just before the hour.

And to sort this is a simple situation: keep playing this way. Ben Youngs has been a fantastic player, but now that he has equalled Json Leonard’s record of 114 England mens’ caps, his time as a starter (or perhaps even in the 23) needs to be at an end as England look to play a faster tempo of rugby week in week out. Only by doing this can they cut out the errors and then find a way to build on this attacking game to beat the best defences even if Manu Tuilagi isn’t present.

2022 Six Nations: France v Italy

2022 Six Nations: France v Italy

After the Home Nations kicked off the 2022 Six Nations on Saturday, Paris played host to the final game of round 1 as France welcomed Italy.

In wet and slippery conditions, France played the territory game early on, allowing Melvyn Jaminet to mark his tournament debut with an early penalty. However when the French fullback fumbled a high ball under pressure, the Azzurri took advantage, hitting up hard to pull in the defence before kicking wide to debutant winger Tommaso Menoncello, who somehow just avoided landing in touch to dot down for the first try of the game. The French continued to dominate the territory however, and when an Italian lineout was spoiled off the top, Anthony Jelonch intercepted Stephen Varney’s pass back to Monty Ioane and had an easy run-in for the corner. As the half went on, Jaminet and Paolo Garbisi swapped penalties, but a late penalty gave Les Bleus one last chance before the half ended, and when the driving maul was illegally stopped, they spread the ball wide to put Gabin Villière over in the far corner, with Jaminet kicking the conversion for an 18-10 halftime lead.

The French were soon back on the attack after the break, and when Jonathan Danty’s crash through off a lineout was stopped just millimetres short, Julien Marchand thought he had successfully got the ball over for the try, only for the TMO referral to show that he was bound into the ruck so not legally able to pick and go. However just 5 minutes later the French were over for their third try, with Grégory Alldritt’s pick and go finding a gap in the Italian defence and his offload releasing Villière for another try, while Damian Penaud just failed to collect a crosskick that would have put him over on the hour. However the wing successfully broke down the win with 12 minutes remaining and after feeding Dupont inside, he continued his run to take the return pass and secure the bonus point for Fabien Galthié’s men in his COVID-enforced absence, and with the clock entering the red, Player of the Match Villière was given the ball in space to complete his hat trick, with Romain Ntamack kicking the conversion for a 37-10 victory.

France

Grégory Alldritt looks back to his best, and that should be a big worry for other nations.

While France are a great team with so much depth, they do seem to lack a real ball carrier in the back row when Alldritt is missing or not fully firing. Yes they have players who can make the hard yards and a group of very dynamic hookers, but there are very few like Alldritt who can carry in the tight but then also make the big metres when put in space.

However, he looked close to his best today and it helps make the team much more dangerous. You just need to look at Villière’s second try or the change that Penaud just failed to complete on the hour, where one strong carry into space put Les Bleus on the front foot, giving the skill players the time and space to take full advantage.

France may be missing a few players like Virimi Vakatawa and captain Charles Ollivon, but with Alldritt back on form, that will be a huge boon to their Championship hopes.

Italy

So often in the past we have seen Italy put up a dogged fight for 50-60 minutes, only to run out of steam and get ripped apart in the final quarter of the game. This week however, the Italians kept the competition going to the end.

This is a big moment for the Azzurri. At Test level, if you can’t compete for the full 80 minutes, it’s going to be very difficult to come away with a result. More that that though, it’s noticeable that this fitness retained despite spending pretty much all of the second half defending, which was also the case for much of the opening 40 minutes.

Were France perfect? No, but you’d have still to expect that in the past they’d have ran away for a 30-40 point margin of victory, yet instead had to fight until the death for a 27-point margin. If Italy can keep this up throughout the tournament, it will be a big step forward and could catch a team out.

Guinness Six Nations