Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

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

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

England

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

France

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

Ireland

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

Italy

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

Scotland

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

Wales

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


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

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

Six Nations 2020: The England Squad

Six Nations 2020: The England Squad

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

England’s 34-man squad

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

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

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

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

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

Fly Half: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jacob Umaga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think of the squad?


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

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

The RWC2019 Debrief: Wales

The RWC2019 Debrief: Wales

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

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

RWC2019 Qualification

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

2019 Form

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

The Debrief

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

The RWC2019 Debrief: Uruguay

The RWC2019 Debrief: Uruguay

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

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

RWC2019 Qualification

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

2019 Form

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

The Debrief

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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

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

The RWC2019 Debrief: USA

The RWC2019 Debrief: USA

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.

As I near the end of this journey, today I will be looking at the USA.

RWC2019 Qualification

The Eagles qualified as Americas 1 for the first time in their history by beating Canada on aggregate, drawing 28-28 in Canada before winning 52-16 at home.

2019 Form

The USA started the year with a 3ʳᵈ place finish in the Americas Rugby Championship, winning against Chile, Canada and Brasil but losing to Argentina XV and Uruguay. They again finished 3ʳᵈ in the Pacific Nations Cup with wins over Canada and Samoa but a loss to Japan. They managed one final victory over Canada prior to the World Cup, beating them 15-20.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (5ᵗʰ in Pool C)
    • England 45-7 USA
    • France 33-9 USA
    • Argentina 47-17 USA
    • USA 19-31 Tonga

Playing in a pool with 3 Tier 1 nations was always going to be difficult for the USA, but I think they would have hoped for a better reward. Their campaign could not have started any worse, losing young prop David Ainu’u to injury just a couple of minutes into their match against England, with George Ford scoring the opening try just minutes later and Piers Francis inexplicably avoiding a red card for a high tackle with the first contact of the game! They recovered well to put in a strong defensive performance. While they recovered well, the second half proved too much for them, not helped by a failed HIA for Will Hooley and a late red card for a stupid high tackle from John Quill (which ruled him out for the rest of the tournament).

Against the French, the Eagles gave as good as they got, with their maul proving a real weapon, but again they fell away in the final 15 minutes to concede 3 late tries, without managing to cross the whitewash themselves. A decision to swap Marcel Brache from 13 to wing proved costly against Argentina, as it left them defensively weak in the midfield, which Argentina (who changed things up as they were already mathematically unable to qualify for the knockouts) took advantage of.

Finally was the match they would have been targeting: against Tonga. An initial defensive, territory-based approach was not working for them, but the introduction of Mike Te’o and a switch to a more open attack paid dividends and got them back in the match, at which point they reverted to their more defensive style and fell away again.

Through the tournament, strong running from hooker Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike helped but them on the front foot with regularity, while Marcel Brache was a key part of the defence when at 13. AJ MacGinty also looked good for the USA, but his impact was limited as too often he ended up being involved in contact, which severely hindered the team’s cohesiveness in attack.

Looking Ahead

Of all the Tier 2 nations, I think that the Eagles are one of the teams in the best position to grow over this 4 year cycle. Though it has plenty of competition from other sports, rugby is getting bigger in America, which will only be helped by the success of the 7s team in recent years, which is going to be a key development tool for some of the stars of the future.

Meanwhile, and perhaps even more important, is the growth of Major League Rugby, which is about to enter its 3ʳᵈ season and expand from 9 teams to 12, with 11 of them being based in the US. This is giving the potential internationals a chance to grow with a regular high level of rugby, and the level is just going to continue improving as superstars like Mathieu Bastareaud, Rene Ranger, Ma’a Nonu and Digby Ioane join Samu Manoa, Ben Foden and Osea Kolinisau in the league. Stars like these will not just improve the quality of opposition the players are facing, but be monumental in developing the elite ethics, skills and tactics within their own franchises and – most importantly in the long term – get more people watching the league and getting into the sport.

In terms of personnel, the USA are in a relatively strong position. There are very few players from this tournaments squad who feel like they will be too old to feature again in 4 years, while a number of less experienced players have the chance to become key figures in the squad over the next couple of seasons, such as Ainu’u, Saracens’ Titi Lamositeli, Hanco Germishuys, Mike Teo’o and Ruben de Haas. Moreover, they have the benefit of having a good number of players also playing in the Premiership, Championship and even a couple in France and the Southern Hemisphere, which will again help to improve the quality of the overall squad.

The key thing for the USA now is to start getting more matches against top opponents. This World Cup showed that they were able to hold their own against Tier 1 nations, but were just dropping off in the final quarter. If they could start playing against elite teams on the regular, this is something that they would be able to work on and I think that we could start to see them pulling off some upsets. I continue to believe that the USA could be the next rugby superpower, they just need to be given the chance.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Tonga

The RWC2019 Debrief: Tonga

Happy New Year and 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.

As I near the end of this journey, today I will be looking at Tonga.

RWC2019 Qualification

Tonga qualified as Oceania 2 by finishing 2ⁿᵈ overall in the Oceania regional qualifier, made up of the 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cup tournaments.

2019 Form

The Ikale Tahi did not come into the tournament on the best of form. A win against Japan but losses to Samoa and Japan saw Tonga finish 5ᵗʰ in the Pacific Nations Cup. In their warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup, they defeated the Western Force, but lost to Fiji before being blown out by New Zealand in a match that saw the All Blacks willingly play a man down for the final chunk of the game.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (4ᵗʰ in Pool C)
    • England 35-3 Tonga
    • Argentina 28-12 Tonga
    • France 23-21 Tonga
    • USA 19-31 Tonga

Coming into a pool with 3 Tier 1 nations meant that it was always going to be difficult for Tonga, but they certainly fought hard and in a slightly different world could have found themselves qualifying for the knockouts.

Opening their campaign against England, Tonga put in a supremely physical performance – led by the big-hitting flanker Zane Kapeli – to cause England issues, but while fly half Kurt Morath controlled the game well, they struggled to create anything of note in attack.

Injury meant that Morath played no further part in their campaign and it took a while for his replacement James Faiva to grow into the tournament. Tonga looked like they were going to be blown out early by Argentina, going 28-0 down, but they recovered strongly and arguably should have had a penalty try for a no-arms tackle from Tomás Lavanini that was unbelievably deemed legal by referee Jaco Peyper. They started slowly again when taking on France, finding themselves 17-0 down after a very disjointed first half performance, but a strong platform at the scrum helped them recover well in the second half, just running out of time in their comeback.

With qualification for the knockouts behind them, they again started poorly against the USA, creating chances but not finishing them due to inaccuracies. They sorted things out int he second half, however, and were able to run away with things in the second half to finish the tournament on a high.

Looking Ahead

This is a very interesting time for Tonga. They have a squad that is far from perfect but still ran a couple of Tier 1 nations close. However, a number of their influential players from this squad have probably just played in their last world cup, including captain Siale Piutau, David Halaifonua, Cooper Vuna, Kurt Morath, Sione Kalamafoni and Siua Halanukonuka. There are certainly still some star players who have the chance to still be around in 4 years – Kapeli, Sam Lousi, Steve Mafi, Telusa Veainu, James Faiva and Sonatane Takulua – but they need to find the young talent to build up this squad and replace the outgoing players in order to push on.

What is very interesting when you look at Tonga’s RWC2019 squad is just how spread out the players are. The players are spread over 11 different countries, with just a handful of players in the “elite” leagues – and a couple of those are at Leicester Tigers, who look like their days in the Premiership could be numbered! Faiva looks like he could be the future at fly half for the next cycle, but can a player in the top league of Spanish rugby really play against the right level of opposition to run an international back line? Tonga needs to get more players into the top leagues, and they need to get to a state where they can play together more often, as the national team doesn’t play anywhere near as many matches as the Tier 1 nations.

As well as getting more matches against Tier 1 opposition – including home matches! – Tonga would benefit so much from having a franchise in Super Rugby, as players would be able to build chemistry together while also taking on an elite level of competition. I feel that Tonga are in a better place right now than Samoa, but the next 4 years will be crucial for Pacific Island rugby.

The RWC2019 Debrief: South Africa

The RWC2019 Debrief: South Africa

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.

As I continue down the list alphabetically, today I will be looking at South Africa.

RWC2019 Qualification

As the team who finished 3ʳᵈ at RWC2015, South Africa automatically qualified for the 2019 tournament.

2019 Form

While things were not looking great earlier in the cycle, the move to get rid of Allister Coetzee and have SARU Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus take over the head coach role started to improve performances and results.

Coming into 2019, South Africa won the shortened Rugby Championship with wins at home to Australia and away to Argentina, to add to a draw in New Zealand. In their final warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup, they managed a victory at home to Argentina and demolished Japan 7-41.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (2ⁿᵈ in Pool B)
    • New Zealand 23-13 South Africa
    • South Africa 57-3 Namibia
    • South Africa 49-3 Italy
    • South Africa 66-7 Canada
  • Quarterfinal
    • Japan 3-26 South Africa
  • Semifinal
    • Wales 16-19 South Africa
  • Final
    • England 12-32 South Africa

Looking at their pool before the tournament, South Africa would have been confident that they would make it out of their pool, with their opener against New Zealand likely deciding who came first. Despite coming in looking on better form, South Africa came off second best against New Zealand, with their mistakes being punished by a clinical All Blacks side, though there were some very strong performances from winger Cheslin Kolbe and back rowers Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

With the hard match out of the way, the rest of the pool stage was about spreading the minutes throughout the squad to keep everyone fresh while remaining dominant. This chopping and changing of players did lead to some sloppy moments that cost them points, but never enough to put the win at risk. While Faf de Klerk didn’t have the best of pool stages, Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach showed the depth at 9 in this squad, while the pack did an incredible job of dominating at mauls and scrums. Against Italy, this physical advantage was nullified by early Italian injuries resulting in uncontested scrums less than 20 minutes into the match, but a red card for Andrea Lovotti soon after halftime helped the Springboks pull away. They finished off their pool stage with a strong 66-7 win over Canada, but after putting on 40 points in the first 30 minutes, they failed to push on after Josh Larsen’s 36ᵗʰ minute red card.

If there was any worries that this limited second half against Canada hinted at problems to come, the Springboks quickly proved that would not be the case, as they got revenge for Japan’s win in Brighton. The pack was dominant from the first minute and this, combined with some great defence from Lukhanyo Am in midfield, nullified the Japan attack and created an incredible platform to attack off. De Klerk was starting to come back to form by this point and with his job made so easy by the pack, he was able to control the attack and get a try of his own, well playing an important role in the defence.

De Klerk’s game management – along with that of fly half Handré Pollard – proved important in a tight semifinal against Wales. Again, the Springbok pack gained an advantage and the defence held strong to stop the Welsh, while a combination of the halfback’s tactical kicking and Damian de Allende’s hard running (and deserved try) were enough to pull out a narrow victory.

Going into the final with England, we were given a clash of 2 great packs, but the South African forwards earned the dominance and another strong tactical game, with the team eventually breaking down England for a couple of late tries, earning the Springboks their 3ʳᵈ World Cup title to pull level with New Zealand.

Looking Ahead

This is a squad in a very good position. Coming into the tournament, only 7 of the squad were in their 30s, so a very high number should still be available come 2023, while a number of younger players who are maybe on the fringes of the XV and 23 at the moment are set to become regulars over the next few years, such as RG Snyman, Damian Willemse, S’busiso Nkosi, Herschel Jantjies and Kwagga Smith.

The key thing right now is not cutting off any options. A few years ago, the preference was clearly towards players based in South Africa, but so many of the squad and other potential internationals like the du Preez brothers are moving abroad. Players like Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach can point to playing abroad as having revitalised their career, so it could be that by allowing other players to move outside of South Africa, it allows them to learn different playing styles while also opening up spots back home for the talent coming through.

Right now, there are a few places that maybe need some attention. In the back row, it Francois Louw and Vermeulen will have both played their last World Cups, while flankers Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit will also both be in their 30s. Kwagga Smith is an incredible talent, great at the breakdown while his 7s background makes him dangerous in the loose. Dan de Preez looked fantastic for the Sharks and has carried that form into his early days at Sale. At 24 years old, this is the perfect time to bring him into the national squad and build him into the next star in the back row. Fly half also needs a look, as Elton Jantjies will be 33 come the next tournament and does not appear international standard to me anyway, while Handré Pollard can be a great player for a defensive territory-focused gameplan, he does not have the same level of expertise when running a more expansive attack. Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse need to decide now if they want to play fly half or full back internationally and focus on the position, while the next generation of fly halves needs to start making its way through in Super Rugby too.

The other key thing right now is the man in charge. With the World Cup over, Rassie Erasmus has left his role as head coach to focus on his duties as SARU Director of Rugby. We saw in the Allister Coetzee reign just how badly things can go with the wrong man in charge, so the union need to make sure that they get in someone who can build on Erasmus’ good work. Johan Ackermann is a name that has been mentioned and while I completely agree with the quality of his work with the Lions and Gloucester, as a Gloucester fan I hope that the Springboks job will be his in the far future.

Assuming they get the right person in charge, this is a team that will be hard to beat over the coming years.