Pick a Squad: 2019/20 Scarlets

Pick a Squad: 2019/20 Scarlets

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, my need for rugby is still struggling to be met, despite recent stories surrounding player movements and Bill Beaumont’s re-election. As if I needed any further proof about how much my life revolves around rugby, I’ve noticed how my WhatsApp chats with one of my close friends Gez have gone from pretty much daily and going on for hours, to a couple of hours per week.

So in search of a reason to keep conversation going, it was time to look at another “Pick a Squad” (not the catchiest of names but I’ve been doing so many of these I needed to think of something!) and take a look at the team he supports: the Scarlets, who have also become my PRO14 team of choice over the last 10 years.

For this, we have looked at this season’s squads and each put together what we think would be our ideal 23-man matchday squads, assuming everyone was fully fit at the same time. I’ll be comparing mine and Gez’s picks (Spoiler: there is a lot of agreement, which is actually rare for us when it comes to Welsh rugby!) so Gez’s selections will be shown in brackets and red.

1: Rob Evans (Rob Evans):- There were 2 clear ways to go at loosehead, with Rob Evans and Wyn Jones both in or around the national team in recent years. Surprisingly, we both went for Evans as the starter and I imagine that a key reason for this is his carrying in the loose, which fits very well in an open attacking team like the Scarlets.

2: Ken Owens (Ken Owens):- Of course “The Sheriff” takes this spot! Owens is one of those players who leads by example and will do what is required of him by the team – I always remember when he had a stint at number 8 during an injury crisis a few seasons ago.

3: Samson Lee (Samson Lee):- He may have fallen out of favour with the national team, but Samson Lee is a unanimous vote here. The tighthead has impressive hands for a prop and car carry well into the defensive line to help the team get on the front foot.

4 & 5: Jake Ball & Sam Lousi (Jake Ball & Sam Lousi):- I get the feeling that Jake Ball was the nailed on pick for both of us here. Though he wouldn’t personally make my Welsh 23 (which may be something I look at if this lockdown continues much longer), he brings physicality to the pack and will carry and tackle hard. Though he needs to watch his discipline, Sam Lousi got the vote from both of us as he is a player who has played at a high level recently for the Hurricanes, while looking very good for Tonga in the Rugby World Cup. At 28, he is just entering his prime and once fully settled could become a key member of the pack.

6: Aaron Shingler (Aaron Shingler):- At times, there were thoughts that he wouldn’t be able to come back from a knee injury suffered in 2018’s PRO14 final, but he is back now and has fully earned his place in the 6 shirt. A dynamic blindside who is also a key operator at the lineout, he provides something different than most Home Nations 6s.

7: James Davies (James Davies):- A favourite of both of us, the fact that “Cubby” has just a handful of caps to his name shows just how deep Wales are at openside. Davies is a highly talented jackal but his key point is his ability to get around the park from his time playing on the World Sevens Series for Wales and in the Olympics for Team GB – I remember one match where he was moved from the pack to wing following a red card in the first half and covered the position better than many specialised wingers would have.

8: Blade Thomson (Blade Thomson):- I did wonder if Thomson’s versatility (he can cover lock, blindside and number 8) would count against him here, but the Scottish international gets the number 8 shirt by unanimous vote. Injuries may have hampered recent seasons, but the former New Zealand U20s and Maori All Blacks back row provides a physical challenge while also being able to open his stride in space to harm a defence. If he can get a period of clean health, fans will get a chance to see his true potential.

9: Gareth Davies (Gareth Davies):- The fact that Davies’ spot in the Wales 23 is now at risk just shows the quality of scrum halves Wayne Pivac has to pick from. Though I am not a fan of Davies in his more combative moments and think that his kicking game needs some work, he is a great attacking threat, but his true value comes in defence, where his tackle numbers are what you’d expect from a back row, while he positions himself and times his runs so well, he gets in his opposite number’s mind and is always good value to pick off a pass from the back of a ruck and take it back to the house.

10: Rhys Patchell (Rhys Patchell):- Another to have had his injury issues in recent years, Patchell is such a talented playmaker who will take the ball to the line to create a gap to put his runners through. A regular in recent Welsh squads when fit, it will be interesting to see where he fits in the national team’s pecking order once Gareth Anscombe returns from injury.

11: Steff Evans (Steff Evans):- He fell down the pecking order a few years ago but has done well to pull himself back up and ends up getting a starting spot in a very deep back 3. Evans is a great attacking talent with the footwork to beat some of the best defenders. At just 25, he still has time to work on the defensive side of his game to get back into international contention.

12: Hadleigh Parkes (Hadleigh Parkes):- Let’s be honest, there were never going to be any surprises in the midfield as things stand, though things could get interesting soon with rumours of a move to Japan. Parkes has not had the best of seasons and the enforced break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is probably what he needed, as he has been one of Wales and the Scarlets’ best players in recent years. Parkes is a strong and willing carrier but the key point here is his defence, where he makes a solid midfield pairing with…

13: Jonathan Davies (Jonathan Davies):- One of the best 13s in World Rugby when fully fit, “Fox” brings solid defence and skilful attack to the midfield, while he also has a cultured left boot to help in the territory game. One of the easiest picks to make.

14: Johnny McNicholl (Johnny McNicholl):- One of the key players for the Scarlets in recent years, McNicholl is a fantastic attacking talent either at wing of fullback. He hasn’t had the best of starts for Wales since becoming eligible, but I think it’s just a matter of time before he begins to shine there too.

15: Liam Williams (Liam Williams):- The lockdown may mean that he hasn’t played for the Scarlets since re-signing as the first stage of Saracens attempts to stop cheating their way to victory, but he is contracted to the region and therefore eligible for selection, taking the 15 shirt ahead of Leigh Halfpenny. Like with Gareth Davies, I’m not the biggest fan of the way he comes across on the pitch, but he is an undeniable talent and a great player for the Scarlets to get back on their books despite already having options in the back 3.

 

16: Ryan Elias (Ryan Elias):- If Elias is getting selected by the national team despite being the understudy at regional level, it shows just how much talent he has. Owens and Elias very much pick themselves in this squad, and it will be interesting to see how long he is willing to remain second fiddle to his captain.

17 & 18: Wyn Jones & Werner Kruger (Dylan Evans & Wyn Jones):- Having just missed out on a stating spot, Jones clearly secures a spot on the bench, bringing international quality to the pitch as the opposition front row begins to tire. One extra benefit of Jones is his ability to play both sides of the scrum, which has led to our first difference in selection as Gez and I pick our other replacement prop. I have chosen to keep Jones on his preferred side of the scrum and partner him with South African tighthead Werner Kruger, who has been a regular for the Scarlets and the Bulls before that, while Gez has preferred to go with experienced loosehead Dylan Evans.

19: Tevita Ratuva (Lewis Rawlings):- Gez and I have gone different routes for the replacement lock position. I have favoured the youthful promise and natural talent of Fijian Ratuva, who has just turned 25, while Gez has gone for the more experienced Rawlings, who also provides some cover at blindside.

20: Uzair Cassiem (Josh Macleod):- I’m not to surprise to see us differ with this pick due to the quality of options available – even I was struggling between 3 picks until the moment I had to finalise my picks. Dan Davis is a talent I really rate, but at 21 he is the future and just misses out. Josh Macleod is a great young pick and I expect to see him fighting for a starting spot over the next couple of years, so I can understand why Gez picked him. I have instead gone for Cassiem, as he is a more experienced option while I also feel that he provides a bit more versatility than the other options (including number 8), increasing the tactical flexibility of the squad.

21: Kieran Hardy (Kieran Hardy):- Hardy has looked a phenomenal talent in the matches that I have seen and showed his quality by making experienced scum half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne surplus to requirements. Having the benefit of being able to learn from Gareth Davies and then take the reins during international windows is giving Hardy the perfect chance to succeed and I look forward to seeing how he progresses over the coming seasons.

22: Angus O’Brien (Angus O’Brien):- Dan Jones on form is a quality player but you can’t always guarantee that he’ll be at that level. O’Brien gets the nod from both of us here due to a greater consistency, while he is also able to cover 15, giving extra tactical flexibility.

23: Kieron Fonotia (Leigh Halfpenny):- And finally we reach the position that actually caused the most debate between Gez and I. Gez has understandably gone for Halfpenny due to his years of top level experience and the amount of money going onto his contract. While Halfpenny is a great pick, I felt that he was somewhat redundant technically due to Liam Williams being able to move to the wing and Angus O’Brien covering 15 (while Halfpenny would not be able to take the 22 shirt due to not being a legitimate option at 10), so I have instead looked to provide cover for the midfield in Fonotia, who provides a great experienced option off the bench or if one of the starting centres is unavailable.

 

Who would make your 23?

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

The Gloucester Rugby XV of my Life

The Gloucester Rugby XV of my Life

Anyone else missing rugby during this pandemic? Yeah, me too!

As you may have seen with my regular posts, I have been keeping my rugby brain working during this lockdown by creating XVs or matchday 23s. Recently I selected my Gloucester 23 for this season, but as I was doing so, I found myself going down memory lane and thinking of some of the brilliant players that have featured for the cherry and whites through the years… and so that is what I am looking at today.

For this, I will be selecting a Gloucester Rugby XV of my favourite players to have represented my beloved Gloucester Rugby since I took an interest. I got into rugby when I went to secondary school, which was just in time for the success of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph and Gloucester’s 2003 Powergen Cup win and loss in the Premiership final. What I have also done is made the decision to pick my favourite players rather than the players I think are the best (although some will be the same!) as the game has changed so much over the years, making it difficult to give a true comparison.

For this article, I also reached out to my friend and occasional contributor Phil for his list, to see the similarities. As we go through, Phil’s selections will be bracketed and in red.

1: Nick Wood (Nick Wood):- This was not an easy pick at all. For ages, I was thinking to the formidable Gloucester pack of my early years and trying to pick between World Cup winner Trevor Woodman and Argentine hero Rodrigo Roncero. Then, a couple of clips on YouTube reminded me of Nick Wood. “The Commander” was an underrated player and a great operator at the scrum. Since retiring, he has gone on to become a referee – how great must it be to a have a ref who knows exactly what is going on in a scrum?!

2: Richard Hibbard (Olivier Azam):- There were 2 clear standouts at hooker and it appears Phil and I were split as to who came top. Ollie Azam was a part of those legendary Gloucester packs and I always remember my cousin once saying that you could tell were he was on the pitch by seeing the opposition players being thrown into the air. Hibbs got my vote here though (potentially in part a recency bias) as he always looked to give 110% on the pitch and always enjoyed the sight of him in either attack or defence looking like a little cherry and white cannonball with flowing blonde locks.

3: Phil Vickey (Phil Vickery):- John Afoa was under consideration here, but recency bias wasn’t enough this time as he lost out to Phil Vickery. The Gloucester and England captain and World Cup winner certainly earned the nickname “The Raging Bull” with his physicality and was a fantastic player whose career was unfortunately hampered by injuries, which eventually led to his release in 2006.

4 & 5: Alex Brown & Jeremy Thrush (Alex Brown & Marco Bortolami):- This was not easy to pick at all and the fact that I probably missed names even in my honourable mentions (Bortolami, Ed Slater, Franco Mostert, Jim Hamilton and Tom Savage) shows just how great our options have been at lock. Bortolami was such a big name for club and country and at the time one of the best locks in the world, but I went for a much more recent (though not as long-serving) player in Jeremy Thrush, who brought his All Blacks quality to a team severely lacking in the pack at the time. Both of us were set on Alex Brown, though, in no small part due to his consistency (a record 87 consecutive starts, despite a series of injuries through his career) and his mastery of the lineout. Though injury forced him to retire in 2012, he continues to work at Gloucester Rugby to this day.

6: Jake Polledri (Jake Polledri):- That both of us picked a young flanker who only came into the squad in the last couple of seasons and probably hasn’t reached his peak yet shows just how highly we rate Jake Polledri. The Italian back rower is a fantastic talent, with the pace to cause trouble in open space, but the power to make ground almost every time he gets the ball. I can see him going on to be one of Italy’s superstars.

7: Akapusi Qera (Akapusi Qera):- The fact that we both picked Akapusi Qera over one-club man Andy Hazell shows just how highly we regard the Fijian. Q was a fantastic back rower for Gloucester and England, combining FIjian flair, physicality and breakdown nous to create one hell of a player. Though he left Gloucester in 2014, he is back as part of the Glaws family as he currently plays for Hartpury College.

8: James Forrester (Luke Narraway):- Luke Narraway was a fantastic player and a great servant to Gloucester Rugby, but my mind could not pass beyond a player who could have gone on to be a superstar were it not for injuries: James Forrester. Forrester had the blend of pace and power and also the ability to produce at the lineout, but his career was cut short by a knee injury aged 27. Despite this, he was a key part of Gloucester’s success in the early 2000s and scored the winning try in extra time of the 2006 European Challenge Cup Final, getting on the end of his own grubber kick through.

9: Dan Robson (Andy Gomarsall):- There have been so many quality 9s at Gloucester even just in the time that I have been watching rugby (Jimmy Cowan, Greig Laidlaw, Rory Lawson, Willi Heinz to name just a few) while I also just missed Dmitri Yachvili’s time at Kingsholm. World Cup winner Gomars quickly became one of my favourite players in my early days and the story of his career post-Gloucester that saw him go from struggling to find a club to being England’s starting scrum half in the 2007 Rugby World Cup is a great tale of not giving up. Having said all that, I was shocked to not find myself picking him, but I instead saw him just beaten out by Dan Robson. Robson was a fantastic player for Gloucester (and has remained so for Wasps) but I always felt that he never got his fair shot at the starting spot with a litany of star names being brought in ahead of him, and it was this defence of him during those seasons that came to mind first when picking my scrum half.

10: Danny Cipriani (Danny Cipriani):- Considering the amount of quality fly halves Gloucester have had since I became a fan (including Ludovic Mercier, the Burns brothers, James Hook and Nicky Robinson), the fact that Danny Cipriani was a unanimous pick says a lot about him. He is one of the most talented players I have ever seen and his golden wrists were key to Gloucester’s success last season. But what has elevated Cips even further is his openness regarding mental health and his #BeKind campaign this year – he’s made mistakes in his life but he is becoming a real role model and I would love him to see out his career at Kingsholm.

11: Jonny May (Lesley Vainikolo):- Big Les was a fantastic attacking player when on form and had an impact similar to that of Taqele Naiyaravoro currently at Northampton. Ollie Thorley has the potential to take this spot if he stays at Kingsholm long-term, but my current pick is Jonny May, who I am thrilled to see returning to the club next season. May is pure pace and I always loved seeing his meandering runs that would result in him finding and exploiting a gap by turning on the afterburners. His try for England against New Zealand will live long in the memory.

12: Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu (Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu):- I was very close to selecting Mark Atkinson, who I believe to be highly underrated, but in the end I found myself agreeing with Phil’s pick of Fuimaono-Sapolu. The Samoan may be a controversial figure, but there were 2 big moments that stuck in my mind making this selection: his intercept try in the dying seconds to salvage a 41-41 draw at Welford Road in 2011 and the craziest of one-handed dummies against Newport.

13: Terry Fanolua (Terry Fanolua):- Had injuries not ruined so much of his career, Henry Trinder had the potential to compete at this spot, but right now it was an easy choice. One of the first overseas players in the Premiership, I still remember to this day hearing the Shed chanting his name. Fanolua was a key player in the successful Gloucester squads of the early 2000s and at the time he left the club, he had more Premiership appearances and tries than any other player in cherry and white.

14: James Simpson-Daniel (James Simpson-Daniel):- Of course this was a unanimous pick! Charlie Sharples deserves a mention and Louis Rees-Zammit has the potential to fight for a spot in the XV in the future, but it would be at the expense of Jonny May, such is the level Sinbad is on! Ask a Gloucester rugby fan who should have received more caps, I doubt many would say someone other than him, such was his quality, but his career was heavily impacted by injuries. As well as scoring a wonderful try for England against the Baabaas that saw him round Jonah Lomu, he also played a key part in one of the greatest tries in Gloucester Rugby history – turning Lawrence Dallaglio inside out right in front of the Shed before feeding James Bailey for the try. He is without a doubt my favourite player in all of rugby.

rugby thinus delport15: Thinus Delport (Tom Marshall):- Very interesting selections here and it’s certainly one I look forward to discussing with Phil much more over a pint when the lockdown is over. Marshall is a fantastic all-round player but never really came into serious contention for me. Jason Woodward is a player I could watch with ball in hand all day, while Olly Morgan is the James Forrester of the backs, but Thinus Delport gets the nod for me. Perhaps a big part of it is the memories of him as the starting 15 during my early years as a fan as Gloucester fund success, but I think a big part of it is remembering my cousin having a massive crush on him. I finally managed to help her get a picture with him a few years back and was immediately cropped out of the image – that’s gratitude for you!

 

Who would make your list?

Until next time!

Multiple Allegiance XV

Multiple Allegiance XV

The lack of rugby (and sport in general) during the COVID-19 pandemic is driving me insane, so in a need for a rugby fix, I have started putting together a couple of “Pick an XV” articles. I was throwing about ideas with my god friend and occasional contributor Gez a few nights ago and he made a great suggestion: creating a starting XV of players who would have been eligible to play for multiple nations.

Per World Rugby regulation 8, a Player may only play for the senior fifteen-aside National Representative Team, the next senior fifteen-a-side National Representative Team and the senior National Representative Sevens Team of the Union of the country in which:

  1. he was born; or
  2. one parent or grandparent was born; or
  3. he has completed thirty six consecutive months of Residence immediately preceding the time of playing. 

The 3-year residency rule is set to extend to 5 years from the end of 2020.

A player who has been capped for one nation can become eligible for another nation by completing a period of 3 years without selection for the original nation, then playing in an Olympic event (rugby 7s Olympic Games/Olympic qualifying events) for the new nation.

For this, I am only picking from players who are currently playing the game. I am also going on knowledge that is out there, so there may very much be a player who was eligible for multiple countries due to family links, but due to committing early to his country of birth and residence, those links have not come out.

Who would make your XV?

1: Mako Vunipola:- Where else to start but England and Lions prop Mako Vunipola. He may have become one of the best looseheads in World Rugby and become a key component of the England pack, but he qualified for England on residency, having been born in New Zealand to Tongan parents. His father Feʻao Vunipola represented Tonga at the 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cups.

2: Joe Taufete’e:- I was initially going to select former France captain Guilhem Guirado, who is of Catalan descent so was eligible for Spain, but as he is no longer playing internationally, I chose to call a late audible and select 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Joe Taufete’e. The hooker is of Samoan descent and was born in American Samoa, but moved to California aged 5. He has gone on to represent the USA at 2 World Cups so far and has scored more tries than any other tight five player in international rugby history (20 in 27 games).

3: W.P. Nel:- As you can probably tell by the name Willem Petrus Nel, the tighthead is South African by birth but moved to Scotland in the summer of 2012 to join Edinburgh. He made his Scotland debut in 2015 after completing a 3-year residency period and went on to become a key part of the squad, though injuries have denied him the chance to earn as many caps as he should have.

4: Paul Willemse:- Much like Nel, the surname probably gives it away, but Willemse was born in Pretoria before moving to Namibia in his youth and then later back to South Africa. He represented Namibia U18 and South Africa U20, but moved to France in 2014. Having completed the residency period and obtaining French nationality, he made his debut for Les Bleus in the 2019 Six Nations. While he struggled to hold down a spot in the squad under Jacques Brunel, he has quickly become a key figure in Fabien Galthié’s new-look, resurgent French team.

5: George Kruis:- A key component for Saracens and England, George Kruis is a lineout general who is arguably underrated in the loose. The lock has 45 England caps and 3 caps for the British and Irish Lions, but could have instead chosen to represent the Netherlands as his father is Dutch.

6: CJ Stander:- Christiaan Johan Stander becomes the third South African to move abroad on this list, having represented the Baby Boks at U18 and U20 level. After being considered too small to play back row for the Springboks, he was left with the choice of trying to convert to hooker or moving abroad. Stander joined Munster in June 2012 and qualified for Ireland through residency the day after the RWC2015 final. Able to play at 8 or 6, I feel that he is more consistently strong at blindside, where he can carry hard, tackle hard and cause a nuisance at the breakdown. He’ll be hoping to make the British and Irish Lions squad next year to show SARU just how big a mistake they made.

7: David Pocock:- One of my favourite players of the modern game, Pocock is one of the best opensides to play in the last decade. Australia have had the joy of being able to pair him with Michael Hooper, but Pocock was also eligible to play for Zimbabwe, having been born in Gweru but fleeing the country during the unrest created by the government’s land seizure and redistribution campaign.

8: Grégory Alldritt:- Number 8 was such a hard position to pick due to the sheer number of top quality options – especially when you consider both of the flankers I picked also cover 8! If this was 4 years ago, I would have picked Italian captain Sergio Parisse, who was born in Argentina. Tongan-born Welsh back row Taulupe Faletau was an option but injuries have severely hampered his career in recent years. Billy Vunipola was going to be my pick here but considering I already have his brother Mako in the squad, I called an audible and selected Alldritt, who was starring in the Six Nations for Les Bleus but would have qualified for Ireland through his grandparents.

9: Ali Price:- Scrum half was probably the hardest position to pick in terms of limited options, but I settled eventually on Scotland’s current starter. Price’s Scottish eligibility is through his mother, but he was born in King’s Lynn and was educated in Cambridgeshire. He moved from Bedford to Glasgow Warriors in 2013 as part of their Elite Development Programme. He has formed a good one-two punch with Greig Laidlaw in recent years but his former captain’s international retirement has now seen Price take on the lead role ahead of his Glasgow understudy George Horne.

10: Gareth Anscombe:- When New Zealand defeated England in the 2011 IRB Junior World Championship, they had future All Blacks fly halves Lima Sopoaga and Beauden Barrett starting at 12 and 15 respectively. At fly half that day was Gareth Anscombe. In 2014, Anscombe moved to the Cardiff Blues and he made his Wales debut in August 2015, courtesy of his Cardiff-born mother. Though it took a few years to solidify his place in the squad, it looked as if he had earned the number 10 shirt for the World Cup until a knee injury put him out for the season.

11: Marika Koroibete:- Koroibete has been one of the best, most consistent players for Australia in recent years and was a great pick-up for the Wallabies, but this was due to him qualifying on residency. He is in fact a dual-code international, having represented Fiji, the country of his birth, in rugby league.

12: Bundee Aki:- There were a few ways that I could have gone with this selection. New Zealand-born Hadleigh Parkes qualified for Wales on residency, while Fijian-born Samu Kerevi has become the man for Australia. They both just missed out in place of Bundee Aki, who qualified for Ireland on residency, but was born in New Zealand and is of Samoan descent.

13: Manu Tuilagi:- France’s Fijian superstar Virimi Vakatawa was very close to making the list, but loses out to Manu Tuilagi. Born in Samoa in 1991, Tuilagi moved to Cardiff in 2004 and then onto Leicester. The youngest of 7 children (5 of whom have represented Samoa), Manu chose to play for England as this was where he had grown up and played all of his rugby.

14: Sevu Reece:- A newer name on the scene but one to remember, Sevu Reece topped the try scoring charts for the 2019 Super Rugby Season before going on to play for the All Blacks at RWC2019. He was born in Fiji and grew up there, moving to New Zealand in 2014.

15: Charles Piutau:- The fullback played at U20 level for both Tonga and New Zealand before committing to the All Blacks (though brother Siale went on to captain Tonga). Piutau made 17 appearances for the All Blacks but missed out on selection for RWC2015 and has since been ineligible due to playing outside New Zealand, playing starring roles for Wasps, Ulster and Bristol. How great would it have been to see him representing Tonga over the past decade? Aged 28, there is still time for him to play for Tonga, as he has gone long enough since being capped by New Zealand that playing an Olympic Qualifying event for Tonga’s 7s team would make him eligible for the 15-a-side team.

2019/20 Gloucester Rugby 23

2019/20 Gloucester Rugby 23

The COVID-19 pandemic is seeing me going crazy with no sport to watch and it’s no shock to say that I have been missing watching my beloved Gloucester Rugby play.

It’s not been the best of seasons for the cherry and whites, who find themselves 9ᵗʰ in the Premiership table with just 4 wins from 13 games, however one bright spark has been the amount of international representation this season during both the World Cup and the Six Nations. Despite the bad results, I still feel that this is a very strong squad, but there have been issues with injuries and dips in form that have left them lacking wins.

For this article, I will be looking at the Gloucester squad and selecting my ideal matchday 23 if everyone was fully fit.

Starting XV

1: Val Rapava-Ruskin:- Injuries have been the big issue for the Georgian, but he is an incredible talent when physically fit. He can hold his own in the scrum, but comes to life at the breakdown, where he becomes like and extra back row with his ability to jackal and win a turnover.

2: Franco Marais:- So let me get the negative out of the way first: for a top flight hooker, he has been unreliable at the lineout this season. However, his impact on the match is largely positive, as he carries hard and tackles even harder. I could imagine him being used as an emergency 6 and being able to hold his own at the position.

3: Fraser Balmain:- With my decision to go for a player known more for their play in the loose than their scrummaging at loosehead, I have gone for a scrummaging specialist at tighthead. That’s not to say Balmain is a one-trick pony as he also carries very well to help create a platform for the backs.

4 & 5: Ed Slater & Franco Mostert:- Slater was very much missed earlier in the season but has largely put his injuries behind him since moving from Leicester and I would argue that he should have got closer to England recognition when you look at some of the players who have been called up ahead of him. He is a proven leader, a strong carrier and a key part of the lineout. World Cup winner Franco Mostert is also strong at the lineout but more than anything, he is an engine who will keep going all game and top the tackle charts with regularity. Slater and Mostert are arguably one of the strongest second row pairings in the league.

6: Freddie Clarke:- I was initially thinking of putting Clarke on the bench due to his versatility, but eventually decided that he had earned a starting spot and could switch positions mid-game if needed. Clarke is an underrated talent who does not get the respect that he deserves for his work around the park, while he is a strong carrier who can make a team pay if they give him a big enough gap.

7: Jake Polledri:- Anyone who regularly reads my articles will know that I am a big fan of Polledri and while I would not consider him an out-and-out jackal, he is probably the most successful over the breakdown of my back row selections. Where he really comes into his own is as a carrier, where he rarely fails to make ground, while he is another who can fully exploit a gap that opens in front of them.

8: Ruan Ackermann:- Ben Morgan has failed to live up to last year’s performances and at 31, he may now be reaching his decline. Instead, I have gone with Ruan Ackermann who has a wealth of top flight experience for someone who is only 24. Ackermann is another strong carrier who can make the hard yards and tackle all day long.

9: Willi Heinz:- I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think Heinz should be in the England 23 right now as Dan Robson and Ben Spencer are the 9s I think should be building with the squad in this cycle, but I think that the kiwi is a fantastic player. Years of playing for the Crusaders and Gloucester have made him a proven leader and he controls the game so well, including having a strong kicking game to help take pressure off the fly half.

10: Danny Cipriani:- He may not have reached the heights of last season, but let’s be honest: this team’s attack is built around Danny Cipriani. He is one of the most skilful playmakers I have ever seen, who reads the game so well and has the ability to pick out a man with a pin-point accurate pass or kick.

11: Ollie Thorley:- If you’ve never seen his try against Leicester, you need to watch it! That try highlights his pace and footwork, but strangely enough that’s probably the underrate side of his attacking game, as his strength and ability to break a tackle is what put him on most people’s radar. And at just 23, he will only get better!

12: Mark Atkinson:- He’s started to get the plaudits from some pundits, but I still think that Atkinson is one of the most underrated players in the league. He has always been a solid defender and a hard runner with a dangerous offload, but over the last couple of years, he has become even more of an all-rounder and even developed a decent kicking game to exploit the defence out wide.

13: Billy Twelvetrees:- While I think that Chris Harris has got better as the season has gone on and he built chemistry with the players around him, I still think that the way the teams plays benefits from having a second playmaker in the centre… and that man is Billy Twelvetrees. He has had his ups and downs at Gloucester but always puts in 100% and is one of the players who really appeared to have benefited most from Johan Ackermann taking over at Kingsholm.

14: Louis Rees-Zammit:- I’d heard of Rees-Zammit and his crazy speed from the Gloucester age groups, but going into this season, I wasn’t expecting to see him much at all for the seniors this season. However, he came in and shocked the world with 12 tries in 1074 minutes (a try every 89.5 minutes) including a hat-trick against Northampton, fully earning his spot on the wing ahead of his far more experienced teammates.

15: Jason Woodward:- This was a difficult pick for me and I must admit that I am a big fan of Woodward so may have a degree of bias. However the former Hurricane gets the nod for me here. He is such a dangerous player on the counter-attack and his ability to play fullback/wing/centre makes him dangerous coming into the line at any spot. I will however give this caveat: in terrible conditions that favour a kick-heavy territorial game, I go for the more positionally sound Tom Marshall.

Bench

16: Todd Gleave:- This may be a bit of a shock considering James Hanson is still on the roster, but he was not the most reliable at the lineout and has been out for a long time. Gleave may be on paper the 3ʳᵈ or 4ᵗʰ hooker on the depth chart if everyone is fit, but he has impressed me when given the chance, causing some issues for the opposition at the breakdown while also being a bit more reliable at the lineout.

17 & 18: Josh Hohneck & Jamal Ford-Robinson:- As I mentioned when looking at my starting props, I looked to pair one specialist scrummager with one who is a bit more of a open-play threat. While being a kiwi means that he is naturally skilled in the loose, Josh Hohneck will provide a stable scrum, while Ford-Robinson can hold his own at the scrum and then cause issues for tired defences with his carrying.

19: Gerbrandt Grobler:- Say what you want about whether Grobler should be allowed to play having tested positive for an anabolic steroid in 2014, but Grobler served his ban and has gone about reviving his career since. He would be a fantastic starter for Gloucester but unfortunately finds himself at the club at the same time as Slater and Mostert,but that allows for great rotation at lock. Grobler will carry and tackle all day long and is yet another fine lineout operator.

20: Lewis Ludlow:- With 3 ball carriers in my starting back row, I have gone for Ludlow over Morgan for the bench spot as he provides a different dynamic. Ludlow is another potential jackal but has an issue with giving away penalties at the breakdown this season, however his best season came a few years back where he was used primarily as a tackle machine, allowing other players to then get in over the top and make the turnover.

21: Joe Simpson:- I was a little nervous when it was announced that Joe Simpson would be coming to Kingsholm as I had always seen him as a pacy attacking 9, who was now getting on in age. However in the absence of Willi Heinz, he instantly proved his quality as a game manager and leader while still causing the opposition problems with his own legs.

22: Chris Harris:- Henry Trinder was a wonderful talent ruined by a litany of injuries, so Chris Harris gets the nod here, as Billy Twelvetrees can cover fly half. Harris provides a defensively solid, strong running option from the bench to create a solid centre pairing with either Atkinson or Twelvetrees.

23: Tom Marshall:- It’s probably no real surprise given I mentioned him as a possible starter at 15, but Tom Marshall gets the final spot here to cover the back 3. He is a fantastic attacking player and good in the air. I would feel sorry for a team that saw him coming on when they felt tired after 50-60 minutes.

 

Who would make your squad?

Until next time…

A Big Decision for Wayne Pivac

A Big Decision for Wayne Pivac

Wayne Pivac is having some horrible luck in his early games in charge of Wales. Going into only his 4ᵗʰ match in Round 3 of the Six Nations, it looks like he may have only 1 fit fly half. But how did he get here and what are his options?

Falling like dominoes

Things were already going wrong at fly half for Pivac before he even took charge of the team, with Gareth Anscombe picking up a serious knee injury in the World Cup Warm-ups that will keep him out for the season. Going into the Six Nations, he also found himself missing Rhys Patchell, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery.

Then in Round 2 of the Six Nations, things reached breaking point for Wales as Dan Biggar went off in the first half for a HIA and didn’t return. With this being his 3ʳᵈ concussion in a short space of time (he suffered knocks in the World Cup against Australia and Fiji), they are understandably being careful in managing his recovery, putting his chances of passing the return to play protocols in time for this weekend’s match against France in doubt. That wasn’t all though as Gloucester fly half/centre Owen Williams, who has only recently returned from a long injury lay-off, tore his hamstring in the warm-up before the Ireland match.

This means that the only recognised fly half in the squad who is currently fit is 23-year-old Jarrod Evans, who has just a handful of caps to his name.

Calling for reinforcements

While this is a big opportunity for Evans, Wales need to call someone up to cover him from the bench. The big talk that has come up over the weekend is that Wayne Pivac will try to use the exceptional circumstances of having 4 fly halves injured to allow him to bring Rhys Priestland into the squad despite being based outside Wales and having less than the required 60 caps.

While Priestland is a quality player and brings so much experience, I don’t understand this decision form Pivac and hope that he is not allowed to call Priestland up. At 33, and playing for Bath, it is unlikely that he will gain any more caps once Biggar is back, so surely Pivac should take this as an opportunity to look at an eligible option who could look to put themselves in contention over the coming years.

Just a couple of years ago, Sam Davies was fighting with Dan Biggar for the number 10 jersey, but he fell out of favour and lost form. He made the decision to move to the Dragons rather than take a more lucrative option outside Wales, and at 26 he still has plenty of years of international rugby ahead of him. Picking Priestland ahead of him would be a kick in the teeth, whereas bringing him back into the fold, even if just for a match or 2, could be just what Davies needs to fire himself into contention moving forward.

Alternatively, Pivac could look to the West Country for a fly half who would be eligible. Bristol’s Callum Sheedy has played for Ireland U19s and Wales U16s, and has been a key part of the Bears’ recent success. At 24, he is just hitting his prime and would be a great addition to the squad. He has played for England, but that was in an uncapped XV, so he is still available for Wales. Bringing him in and getting him a cap now would be another one stolen from England hot on the heels of Nick Tompkins, while also all-but assuring that another talented fly half would be returning to Wales at the end of his current Bristol contract. It’s a win-win situation.

Finally, Pivac could look back to his old club, the Scarlets, for another young fly half he knows well: Dan Jones. I don’t think Jones would usually come into the international discussion, but desperate times call for desperate measures and his familiarity with the new Wales coaching staff’s tactics may just give the former Wales U20 stand-off an advantage coming in at the eleventh hour.

 

With 3 first choice 10s missing, Pivac will not be judged too harshly, so he should take the chance to add one of these 3 options to his squad to see what they could do. With at least 1 of his fly halves likely to be on the Lions Tour, he may need to look back to this player next summer, so he may as well get them in now.

Who would you call up if you were in Pivac’s position?

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

RWC2019: My Tournament XV

RWC2019: My Tournament XV

The Rugby World Cup is over for another 4 years and before anything else, congratulations to South Africa – the best team definitely won on the day! With the tournament now over, I will be doing a series of articles over the next month or so looking back at the tournament and praising the performances of the nations and players.

Today I will be looking back over the entire tournament to select my XV. I did select a Team of the Tournament after the pool stages, but knockout rugby is where things get super serious, so there have been quite a few chances to that team. Who would make your XV?


Loosehead Prop

Joe Marler certainly deserves an honourable mention after his performances for England having come out of international retirement, but the place in my team goes to Wyn Jones. With Rob Evans left at home and Nicky Smith being demoted to a support role, Jones found himself becoming a key part of the Welsh scrum. Barring having to go up against the might of the Springboks pack, Jones quietly went about his business and was an under the radar star for Wales.

Hooker

Shota Horie was a star for Japan in pool stages, but struggled against a strong Springbok pack and saw his lineout somewhat fall apart in the quarterfinal. As a result, my pick here goes to Ken Owens. He may not be the most spectacular of players, but he was so reliable all around the park and a leader on the pitch.

Tighthead Prop

Oh what could have been if Kyle Sinckler has not gone off just minutes into the final. The Harlequins tighthead has become one of the best props in the world and showed his full range of skills throughout the tournament. Strong in the scrum, he also added a dimension tot he England attack with his tip-on passes. His try from 20 metres out against Australia was the icing on the cake.

Locks

The first pick in the second row was a no-brainer. Man of the Match against New Zealand, Maro Itoje finished the tournament with 71 tackles and was a turnover machine. Beside him, I ended up picking the only person to make more tackles in the tournament: Alun Wyn Jones. A natural leader, it will be far from easy for Wales to replace him.

Blindside Flanker

Honourable mentions must go to Ardie Savea – who put in big performances at every position in the New Zealand back row – and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who was a menace for South Africa at the breakdown. Tom Curry was a star for England, but it is another young Brit who gets the spot: Aaron Wainwright. The Dragons back row has catapulted himself up the Welsh depth chart over recent months and was a star for them in the tournament, with a great blend of attacking and defensive prowess and a long-range try in a Man of the Match performance against France.

Openside Flanker

Another youngster makes it into the back row in the form of Sam Underhill. The Bath flanker was a nuisance at the breakdown but proved time and time again that it is possible to make a dominant tackle while still going low. Racking up 69 tackles, Underhill was a key component of the England defence and will be a star for years to come.

Number 8

Kazuki Himeno was a star of the pool stages, but as the machine that was the South African pack took over the tournament, Duane Vermeulen came to the fore when it was needed. Man of the Match in the final, Vermeulen was such a vital part of the monstrous South African pack, with his strong running and big tackles giving the Springboks a physical edge and a number of key turnovers in the big games.

Scrum Half

Another player to grow into the tournament, Faf de Klerk contributed a try in a Man of the Match performance against Japan, but his contribution went far beyond that. He took on a large role in the territorial game with his box kicking, while he was a constant menace in defence, putting the opposition under pressure.

Fly Half

I want to take a moment to mention Rhys Patchell, who often had a great impact off the bench, but my selection at fly half is Richie Mo’unga. The Crusaders 10 finished the tournament with 54 points (1 try, 20 conversions, 3 penalties), but more than that, he controlled the All Blacks throughout the World Cup and bounced back well from a quiet match against England that I felt was more due to a lack of support and platform around him.

Left Wing

Josh Adams and Makazole Mapimpi deserve a mention for their try-scoring exploits, but I couldn’t leave out Semi Radradra after his fantastic performances in the pool stage. Usually a centre but playing mainly on the wing, he was one of only 2 players to win multiple Man of the Match awards (against Georgia and Wales) and carried more than all-but 4 players throughout the tournament despite not making it out of the pool stages.

Inside Centre

Centres can be difficult to pick as they can play such a variety of roles, but Damian de Allende gets the vote here. He finished the tournament with 2 tries including a crucial one against Wales, but his impact on the tournament went way beyond that. His 65 carries was the fourth most of all players as he played a big role in putting the Springbok attack on the front foot, while in defence he provided a physical resistance to help stop his opponents getting on the front foot himself.

Outside Centre

Another player whose contribution is not always clear, the South African success was built on a solid defence that kept opposition chances to a minimum, which would not have been possible without Lukhanyo Am. The Sharks centre finished with 2 tries but more importantly he secured the 13 channel for South Africa, making them a tough defence to play around or through.

Right Wing

Cheslin Kolbe may have won the 14 shirt had he not missed the semifinal through injury, but instead my pick goes to Japan’s Kotaru Matsushima. 5 tries saw the winger finish in the top 3 try scorers despite exiting at the quarterfinals, while a couple of unfortunate bounces and one untimely drop were all that denied him a few more. He also looked super dangerous when moved to 15 during games. At 26 he is just hitting his prime and could be the next big superstar.

Fullback

I’ve been quite critical of Beauden Barrett playing fly half in recent years, but at 15 he looked so dangerous. Alongside Semi Radradra, he was the only player to win multiple Man of the Match awards (against South Africa and Ireland), creating a dangerous playmaking partnership with Richie Mo’unga and using his pace and footwork to score 3 tries. It will be interesting to say if he keeps the 15 shirt when Damian McKenzie returns from injury.

RWC2019: Pool Stage XV

RWC2019: Pool Stage XV

We’ve spent the best part of 4 years building to this tournament and for 12 of the 20 teams it is already over. The pool stages ave treated us to some wonderful matches and some fantastic rugby, including a couple of huge shock results. But more than that, it has showcased some fantastic players who deserve some love.

I fully intend to pick a XV of the tournament after the final, but the issue with waiting until the tournament is over is that the team will generally get filled with the players who starred in the knockouts. There were so many outstanding players whose tournament is now over so I wanted to give some of those players the credit they deserve, which led me to also creating an XV of the tournament.

With games coming thick and fast, teams (especially the Tier 1 nations with deeper squads) will rotate their players more. Further than that, I would argue that a largely unknown Tier 2 player putting in impressive performances against a couple of Tier 1 nations is probably more deserving of recognition that a Tier 1 superstar who has run through a Tier 2 nation. For this list, I will be picking players whose performances really stood out to me, so statistically there may have been better performances but I felt that these were the players to take note of. I will however throw in some stats if they help solidify my argument.

Who would make your team of the pool stages?


Loosehead Prop

Starting with the position that I found hardest to fill. I have found that very few players at either prop position stood out to me, but especially on the loosehead side. In the end I settled on Joe Marler. The Harlequin had retired from international rugby, but Mako Vunipola’s injury issues saw him make a return and he started all 3 of England’s pool matches. While not such a factor in open play as some other props, he has been a key part of the England scrum, which has been such a solid set piece, and that earns him the number 1 shirt in my XV.

Hooker

An honourable mention must go to Argentina’s Julián Montoya, who finishes the tournament with 4 tries (2ⁿᵈ overall), but instead the number 2 shirt goes to Shota Horie. The Japanese hooker has been great all around the park, making 44 tackles (6ᵗʰ most) in defence and being frequently involved in attack, helping to make metres and ship the ball on to keep defences off guard. Man of the Match against Ireland, I look forward to seeing how far he and his teammates can go in the tournament.

Tighthead Prop

Arguably one of the best tightheads on the planet, Tadhg Furlong gets the pick here. The Irishman is a key member of a strong Irish scrum and featured in all 4 games, dotting down for tries against both Scotland and Samoa. If Ireland are to make it beyond the quarterfinals, then expect Furlong to be heavily involved.

Locks

I initially struggled a little in the second row, but eventually found myself settling on 2 players who will be facing off in the quarterfinals. Maro Itoje managed a whopping 7 turnovers over just 2 games, while Izack Rodda played a full 80 minutes in 3 of Australia’s games, being a key factor at the set piece with 5 lineout steals. While it may not be one of the more attractive match-ups when England face Australia, Rodda v Itoje could be a key battle that decides the match.

Blindside Flanker

Honourable mentions must be given to Uruguay captain Juan Manuel Gaminara, Japan stalwart Michael Leitch and Wales’ new back row star Aaron Wainwright, but the number 6 shirt in this squad goes to Braam Steyn. The Italian started all 3 of Italy’s games (including a start at 8) and has become a key member of the Italian back row. He put in huge defensive performances and has made some important metres going forwards while his try against Canada helped get the ball rolling for Italy in that game. Between him, Jake Polledri and Seb Negri, the Italian back row are in a good space despite Sergio Parisse’s international retirement.

Openside Flanker

Jake Polledri is growing into the Italian 7 shirt, Jamie Ritchie was a bright spot in a poor tournament for Scotland. Lappies Labuschagné was very unlucky to miss out on the 7 shirt here, but instead I gave it to Tagir Gadshiev. The Russian was a star performer in every game and finished the pool stages with 45 tackles (5ᵗʰ most). I will be shocked if some top tier club teams aren’t keeping their eyes on him.

Number 8

Josh Navidi deserves a mention having taken over the 8 shirt at the last moment, but there was an obvious pick here: Kazuki Himeno. He has played the full 80 minutes in every match so far and his performances have limited the impact of losing Amanaki Mafi. Used mainly at 8 but also a little at 6, Himeno made more metres than any other forward in the pool stages, while also winning a number of key turnovers as Japan topped their pool.

Scrum Half

Uruguay’s Santiago Arata and Japan’s Yutaka Nagare deserve honourable mentions, but the 9 shirt was secured by Wales’ Gareth Davies. The Scarlets halfback is an incredible talent in the way he stars both in attack and defence. He was named Man of the Match for his performance against Australia where he made intercepting Will Genia look like stealing candy off a baby, while his try at the end of the victory over Uruguay (as he filled in on the wing) was a timely reminder of just how quick he can pounce on the slightest opportunity. He has the potential to become one of the best scrum halves in the world over the next few years.

Fly Half

Felipe Berchesi deserves some love for the way he controlled his team so well despite his pack rarely putting him on the front foot in any games, but the 10 shirt will be going to Richie Mo’unga. Given the All Blacks 10 jersey just ahead of the tournament, he controlled the team well in their victories over South Africa and Canada, while he successfully slotted 12 of his 13 kicks at goal. New Zealand will need him firing on all cylinders to get through the knockouts.

Left Wing

I would have considered him a centre before the tournament, but Semi Radradra has made the 11 shirt his own this tournament. Despite Fiji only managing 1 win in the tournament, Radradra is the only player to have been named Man of the Match twice (against Georgia and Wales). An incredible attacking talent at both 11 and 13, he racked up almost 400 metres alongside 2 tries and numerous assists. It’s a shame we won’t be seeing any more of him in the tournament.

Inside Centre

How do you secure the number 12 shirt? Well playing all but 10 minutes of an unbeaten pool stage campaign is a good way to start. While that was a big point for Hadleigh Parkes, what cements him the place is having done this despite suffering a broken hand in the first match against Georgia. He may have butchered a couple of tries against Uruguay with forward passes, but I think his injury has caused an impact on his passing which hampered him, while he certainly wasn’t helped by Hallam Amos standing so flat.

Outside Centre

I tried so hard to think of other options, but my mind kept coming straight back to Timothy Lafaele. The Japanese performances have been incredible in their high-tempo, high possession attack and high pressure defence, which would not be possible without great performances from Lafaele at 13. On top of this, the offloads he has been throwing are ridiculously beautiful! I’m looking forward to seeing how he matches up against South Africa and (probably) the defensive quality of Lukhanyo Am.

Right Wing

Cheslin Kolbe is a walking highlights reel and deserves a mention here, but I couldn’t really avoid picking Japan’s Kotaru Matsushima. The winger opened the tournament with 3 tries and could have had more, while the bounce of the ball was all that stopped him scoring in their victory over Ireland. He also scored against Samoa and Scotland to bring his tally to 5, while he has frequently made big metres either from wing or fullback and was awarded Man of the Match against Russia. He has a good shot of finishing the tournament as top try scorer.

Fullback

Vasily Artemyev deserves a mention for his ability to simply shake off 2 Samoan tackles to the head in the space of 5 minutes while being one of the stars for Russia. However, Ireland’s Jordan Larmour gets the 15 shirt. The hot-stepper earned Man of the Match against Samoa and also played a starring role against Scotland, while coming off the bench in both of the other games. Rob Kearney has held the 15 shirt for so long and while Larmour is not a like-for-like replacement, he looks like the heir apparent for Ireland and it will be interesting to see if he starts against New Zealand.

Premier League: September 2019

Premier League: September 2019

3 became 1 in September as Liverpool were the only team to go through to the end of September still unbeaten, while Manchester City and Leicester both fell to defeats at Norwich and Manchester United respectively. That win was United’s only one in the league during the month as a loss at West Ham and dismal 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal left with just 9 points, well off the pace of their rivals. Liverpool are already beginning to look pretty comfortable at the top of the table, and while you imagine City will still be safe in 2ⁿᵈ place, the rest of the top 4 and European qualification spots look very much up for grabs at the moment. Meanwhile at the bottom, Watford have already changed managers, with Quique Sanchez Flores returning in place of Javi Gracia but they still find themselves rooted to the bottom of the table, while Villa and Newcastle closed the month in the bottom 3, 1 point away from safety.


Premier League Round-up


Backup needed

It was a classic tale of David versus Goliath. Defending champions Manchester City came to Carrow Road in Round 5 and it would have been only the most optimistic/deluded Norwich fans that would have thought they could come away with a win. Norwich had Patrick Roberts unavailable as he was on loan from City and an injury list almost long enough to create a starting lineup, to the point that they had 2 keepers on the bench just to fill all the spots – even Tim Krul and Ben Godfrey were playing hurt. The Canaries’ starting XI had been assembled for £6.45m, compared to City’s lineup in excess of £400m. There was only one way this match was going… 2 hours later, City were walking off the pitch with an L beside their name, courtesy of a 3-2 shock victory.

While this was an incredible result, the big feature of this match was the awful play at the back from City. With Aymeric Laporte out injured until 2020, John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi were paired together at the back with disastrous results, as mistake after mistake gifted Norwich chances. Then things got even worse midweek as Stones was ruled out for up to 6 weeks with a muscle injury.

When Vincent Kompany moved on in the summer, I thought it was an odd decision not to bring in a 4ᵗʰ centreback. Stones and Otamendi have often appeared to have costly mistakes in them, but more importantly it was leaving them dangerously short. In their absence, Fernandinho has had to fill in at CB and while Rodri’s introduction has meant he hasn’t been missed so much in the midfield, he is still a midfielder playing out of position, which is going to cause issues.

In my opinion, City need to bring in another centreback in January. I’m not saying they need to break the bank to bring in a superstar, but they need to bring in a specialist at the position so that they have suitable cover when their starters aren’t available. In a title race as close as it looks like this one could be, the decision to not bring in a replacement for Kompany could be the difference.

Play the kid!

Chelsea have had a mixed start to the season, but with the transfer ban, they deserve a lot of praise for their willingness to use young English talent. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori have been key players in the opening months of the season, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi look certain to have key roles on their returns from injury.

By contrast, Phil Foden has made just 1 appearance off the bench in the first 2 months of the league, for just a handful of minutes. Foden has looked an incredible talent, but he is not getting the minutes he requires to take a step forward and is now being overtaken by other players in terms of promotion to the senior national team.

Now, he is surely learning and benefiting from the tutelage of Pep Guardiola and training with so many superstars, but it’s hard to believe that he will trusted to take over from David Silva with very little topflight experience if there are other big names available at the right price. He needs to get minutes under his belt now to prove that he can cut it at the top level. For me, Foden needs to look at a move away from the Etihad and to another Premiership club in January. He needs to sit down with Guardiola and see where he fits in the team’s plans. If they can guarantee him a significant place in the squad for next season, then he needs to look at a loan move to prove he deserves those minutes; if they can’t make any promises then perhaps it is time to look at a more permanent move, as Jadon Sancho did.

Pick one… Manager chopping block

It took just 4 rounds of Premier League football before we got our first managerial casualty of the season: Javi Gracia was sacked at the start of the international break following 1 draw and 3 losses, being replaced by former manager Quique Sanchez Flores. Inspired by this, my “Pick One” for this month is: who will be the next Premier League managerial casualty?

First up is Frank Lampard. This will be pretty short as I don’t see there being any chance of Lampard being removed from the job midway through the season barring an awful series of results. He has been hampered by the transfer ban and loss of Eden Hazard, but is doing a great job of bringing through young English talent to build the team around for the coming seasons.

Another manager in a rebuilding phase at an elite club is Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The Norwegian is overseeing a horrible period at Old Trafford as the team tries to rebuild, with players like Antonio Valencia, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez moving on. While there were a few big money signings in Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the rebuild is going very slowly, with a lack of new faces and a focus on the existing players and youngsters coming through. While United are goig through a bad series of results, they have been missing a number of star players like Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw and Anthon Martial, but it is clear that there are holes in the squad, such as an experienced striker to lead the line and score 20+ goals per season. For me, the issue goes beyond Solskjær to Ed Woodward and he should be the one to go, but the chances of him falling on his sword are minimal. Woodward is currently saying United will be patient, so I think the former United striker is safe for now, but if pressure continues to build on Woodward, I’m sure the situation will change rapidly.

The best placed manager at risk is probably Unai Emery. Arsenal may be in the top 4 but they are already will off the pace of Liverpool and City and even find themselves behind Leicester City. The Spaniard is in his second season and has just broken Arsenal’s transfer record on Nicolas Pépé, who has struggled to match the performances of 18-year-old academy graduate Bukayo Saka. All the while, the defence that has been the clubs obvious issue for years continues to be a liability. With Chelsea, Spurs and United struggling, this was Arsenal’s chance to shine… and they aren’t doing it.

Staying in London, and if Emery is in trouble then Mauricio Pochettino is definitely in danger. Spurs came into the season the team likeliest to challenge Liverpool and City for the title, but find themselves (at time of writing) in 6ᵗʰ, behind Leicester and West Ham. Too many key players seem miles off their best as their contracts come towards an end, while Pochettino has not seemed satisfied with the way things are being ran, stating a few months ago that he is only the coach and has no say in transfers. Results and performances need to improve soon, otherwise if Pochettino isn’t sacked, he may choose to walk.

While all of these managers are in some degree of danger, the man who I feel is currently on the hottest seat is Marco Silva. The former Watford manager as been at Everton since May 2018 and the club has worked hard to put together a quality side, yet they finished behind newly-promoted Wolves and 7 points from 7 matches leaves them just 2 points above the drop zone with a worse goal difference than Aston Villa. For a club of their stature to be in this position is unacceptable and I honestly can’t see him lasting far beyond the international break.

Who do you think is most at risk?

RWC2019: Absentee 23

RWC2019: Absentee 23

The Rugby World Cup is less than a week away and we are now at a stage where all 20 nations have had to finalise their squads for the tournament. While there a plenty of players who will currently be thrilled at the opportunity to represent their country on the biggest stage, there will also be players left disappointed at missing out on a place in the squad, hoping they will get another chance in 4 years’ time. For some of these players, it will be badly timed injuries. For some, it will be a result of too much strength in one position. Some may have even found that their face just didn’t fit with the current organisation.

Today, as we continue to build towards the tournament’s kickoff, I will be looking to create a team from players who are set to not feature in the tournament. I was initially looking to select just a starting XV, but after arguing with my friend Gez over who deserved the 10 spot out of Cipriani and Anscombe, I decided to expand it to a full 23-man matchday squad – which simply took the argument to who should be the starter!


Journey to RWC2019 series:


1: Karl Tu’inukuafe:- Maybe not the player most would have expected to take this spot given some of the Home Nations players missing out, but on recent international pedigree, I couldn’t leave Tu’inukuafe out. Nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2018, Tu’inukuafe was a star for the All Blacks despite having been a security guard as recently as 2015. A strong scrummager who showed good skill in the loose, he misses out on a spot in the All Blacks squad courtesy of the depth at prop in New Zealand.

2: Dylan Hartley:- He may have potentially dropped behind Jamie George in the England pecking order, but the England captain would have still been guaranteed a place in the squad had his 2019 not been ruined by a knee injury. England have been missing his captaincy of late.

3: Owen Franks:- One of the biggest shocks from New Zealand’s squad announcement was the omission of Owen Franks. The tighthead has over 100 caps to his name and has played at 2 World Cups but has missed out as Steve Hansen has looked to more mobile options. With Franks set to join Northampton and become ineligible for international selection, it looks like his international career will end on the sour note of the Bledisloe Cup loss in Perth.

4: Richie Gray:- 65 caps for Scotland, 1 Test appearance for the British and Irish Lions, Top 14 champion as recently as this summer… That is a lot of experience to leave out of a Scotland side that needs big runners, but it looks like he will not be involved in Japan as he has chosen to take a summer off following injury issues and the birth of his son just a few months ago.

5: Will Skelton:- A behemoth who failed to live up to his potential in Australia, Will Skelton has revitalised his career since moving to Saracens and dropping a bit of weight to become more mobile. With just 18 caps to his name, Skelton falls well short of the threshold to allow him to feature for the Wallabies without playing in Australia, leaving him ineligible for selection.

6: Facundo Isa:- Capable of playing at 6 or 8, Isa should have so many more caps than the 27 he has currently earned. Unfortunately, playing in France has seen him enter an international exile and though he was given a chance this summer, he was unable to force his way into the squad as Mario Ledesma decided that he had sufficient home-based options available to cover the back row.

7: Seán O’Brien:- We have known for quite a while that O’Brien would be missing the tournament as it was announced in May that he would require hip surgery. Injuries have ruined his career in recent years and sadly it looks like his move to London Irish will see the Tullow Tank finish with 56 caps for Ireland and 5 Test caps for the British and Irish Lions.

8: Taulupe Faletau:- I almost picked Ben Morgan here after having one of his best ever seasons for Gloucester, but I could not leave out Taulupe Faletau. One of the best number 8s in world rugby, Faletau has 72 Wales caps and 4 British and Irish Lions Test caps to his name, but hasn’t featured for Wales since the 2018 Six Nations due to injuries. Sadly, he has been ruled out of appearing in his 3rd World Cup due to a collarbone injury.

9: Rhys Webb:- With 31 caps for Wales and 2 British and Irish Lions Test caps, Rhys Webb is arguably Wales’ best all-round scrum half, but at 30 years old it looks like he will never feature in a World Cup. He missed the 2015 tournament due to an injury picked up in their warm-up match against Italy, then his chances of selection for this tournament were brought to an end when the new 60-cap rule was implemented shortly after the announcement that Webb would be signing for Toulon, making him ineligible for international selection.

10: Danny Cipriani:- I had resigned myself to Cipriani being left out, but that still didn’t make it any easier reading the England squad for the first time. Cipriani has revitalised his career with Sale, Wasps and now Gloucester, winning a host of awards and personal accolades this last season. Eddie Jones took him to South Africa where he set up Jonny May for the only try in their sole victory during their 2018 tour of South Africa. Sadly, it doesn’t look like he was given any real chance of making the squad by Eddie Jones.

11: Aphiwe Dyantyi:- The 2018 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year looked certain to travel to Japan this time last year, but he has missed out on a place in the squad after injury issues stopped him taking any part in this year’s matches… and now his career is in jeopardy following the announcement of a positive test for a banned substance.

12: Ngani Laumape:- Owen Franks’ omission may have been the big news from the All Blacks’ squad announcement, resulting in Laumape’s not getting the attention it deserved. 5 centres vying for 4 spots was always going to result in someone missing out but the NRL convert has been one of the stars of recent Super Rugby seasons and has impressed when given a chance in the national team. Of the 5 centres, he would have been my first choice in the squad.

13: Mathieu Bastareaud:- France have plenty of different options at centre, but it was still a shock to see the experience of Mathieu Bastareaud left out of the squad. A hard runner and dangerous at the breakdown, it appears that Bastareaud lost out as the coaches looked at more mobile options. Following his omission, he has retired from international rugby and after a loan spell at Lyon (what will see him playing in the back row), he will be moving to Major League Rugby to play for Rugby United New York.

14: Santiago Cordero:- One of the most exciting players in the Premiership last year, Cordero thrilled at the 2015 World Cup and has got back to that form over the last season. Equally capable on the wing or at fullback, he joins Isa as one of the shock omissions from Mario Ledesma’s squad having been deemed surplus to requirements due to playing outside of Argentina.

15: Damian McKenzie:- A capable 10 but a wonderful 15 at international level, it looked like Damian McKenzie was about to make the fullback position his own for the All Blacks, using the extra space to devastate defences as a playmaker. Unfortunately, McKenzie suffered a season-ending knee injury in April, leaving Steve Hansen to look at other options.

16: Tatafu Polota-Nau:- Moving away from Australia to play for Leicester Tigers was always going to be a risky move for Polota-Nau. An established and experienced hooker, he had enough caps to still be eligible, but it still opened up a chance which Folau Fainga’a and Tolu Latu took to become the main 2 options. I thought He may still make it in as a 3rd choice for his experience, but Michael Cheika chose instead to look to the future by selecting 22-year-old Jordan Uelese as the final hooker.

17: Rob Evans:- Despite being a former British and Irish Lion, Jack McGrath just misses out on a spot in the 23 to Rob Evans. Injuries have hampered Evans’ chance to train in the build-up to the tournament and in the end that proved costly, despite Evans being one of the best Welsh forwards in the loose.

18: Uini Atonio:- The La Rochelle behemoth was a regular in the France squad, but an injury early in the Six Nations opened up the opportunity for Demba Bamba to prove himself in senior international rugby. Throw in a return for the experienced Rabah Slimani and it made the battle for a spot on the plane much harder. Like Bastareaud, it looks like Atonio eventually missed out due to the coaches wanting more mobile options.

19: Devin Toner:- Probably the most shocking omission from the Ireland squad, Devin Toner has been a favourite of Joe Schmidt throughout his tenure, with his height and prowess at the lineout being a key reason. However, Tadhg Beirne’s return to Ireland and Jean Kleyn becoming eligible through residency made the Irish second row much deeper and in the end, Toner’s questionable form saw him left at home.

20: Pete Samu:- Capable of playing across the back row, Samu was beginning to establish himself in the Australian squad and finished the season well for the Brumbies. Unfortunately, an injury in the quarterfinals caused him to miss the start of this year’s international window and he saw himself fall behind Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Isi Naisarani and Jack Dempsey in the pecking order.

21: Danny Care:- A star for Harlequins and a regular in the England squad for so long, Care has seen himself plummet down the pecking order over the last year and has not featured for England since their win over Japan in November 2018, leaving England with very little experience at 9 behind Ben Youngs. Surgery following an injury in training has now denied him the chance of even being an injury replacement.

22: Gareth Anscombe:- Anscombe may have made himself the starting fly half but his early Wales career also saw him playing plenty of fullback, where he played for the Chiefs before moving north. Anscombe was almost certain to start at the World Cup, until he damaged his ACL and cartilage in his knee during the first warm-up match against England.

23: Huw Jones:- There were so many different ways I could go with this final spot, with names like Waisake Naholo, Chris Ashton, Juan Imhoff and Simon Zebo all eligible for this spot, but I chose to go a different way for this final spot and select Huw Jones. A few seasons back I would have argued that Jones was one of the best 13s in world rugby. However, a combination of injuries and falling out of favour at Glasgow saw his chances limited in a Scottish squad that is suddenly becoming very deep at centre.

 

Who are you most disappointed to see missing the World Cup?


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