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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Eyes On: Scotland v Georgia – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Scotland v Georgia – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After making history by being the first Tier 1 Nation to play in Tbilisi last weekend, Scotland returned to Murrayfield to take on Georgia again in their final warm-up match ahead of the World Cup. After each team knocked on with the line at their mercy, Scotland took the lead through tries from Ali Price and Blair Kinghorn, while 3 penalties from young fly half Tedo Abzhandadze kept the Lelos just 1 point behind at half time. A try from Sam Johnson extended the lead from Scotland, who ran away with it in the final 15 minutes with tries through Darcy Graham, George Horne and Pete Horne, for a final score of 36-9.

 

Scotland

Playing this close to the World Cup is risky and it may have backfired for Scotland on Friday night. The Scots had a number of players leave the pitch early. Blair Kinghorn had started the match well but left the pitch soon after his try with a head injury and did not return. Richie Gray was removed at half time in his first appearance during these warm-ups as a precaution following a tight hamstring. Jamie Ritchie came off with a facial injury early in the second half and is now at risk of missing the tournament (Magnus Bradbury will travel to Japan with the squad in case Ritchie has to pull out). Ben Toolis, who had come on for Gray, only lasted 25 minutes before being removed for a head injury of his own.

While it is obviously not ideal for so many players to suffer injuries (especially head injuries) this close to the tournament, this may have actually given the team some good experience of coping with a limited squad. With the Horne Brothers and Chris Harris covering the backs on the bench, it looks like the back 3 were expected to play the full 80 minutes, but they reacted well to losing Kinghorn by moving Tommy Seymour to 15 and introducing Chris Harris on the wing. With Toolis an Bradbury having already come on, there was no more back row/lock cover on the bench when Toolis had to be removed, so George Turner was moved to cover in the back row and Grant Stewart came on at hooker.

With only 8 spots on the bench and 31 places in a World Cup squad, it is always going to be hard to effectively cover every position. As such, having players with the intangibles to cover multiple positions will be invaluable to Scotland as the matches start to come thick and fast.

Georgia

While they did not play poorly last week, this performance from Georgia was miles better. The Lelos weren’t just there to make up the numbers, they were genuinely in the game until the final 15 minutes. With the game being much more even, it allowed some of their players to really shine.

At just 20 years old, Tedo Abzhandadze appears to have established himself as the starter and looks like he will be a star for the next few cycles. In this match, the young fly half gave the full repertoire: controlling his back line well, making plays with his feet and kicking well for territory, while he also had a relatively good day off the boot, hitting 3 of his 4 kicks. Sticking with the backs and Soso Matiashvili had a great game. The fullback ran for 89 metres (the next closest was Darcy Graham’s 57m) and beat 11 defenders (nobody else beat more than 5).

For so long, the Georgians have just been talked about in terms of their pack. While the pack is obviously still a big weapon, it is great to see the team getting some stars in the back line to take them to a new level. Australia, Wales and Fiji will have a fight on their hands for the top 3 spots in Pool D.


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Eyes On: England v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

England brought their warm-ups for the World Cup to a close at St James’ Park on Friday night with a match against Italy. England started slow and were lucky to not go behind as Tommaso Benvenuti knocked on close to the line, Owen Farrell’s boot giving England a 9-0 halftime lead. Ben Youngs, who was much improved from last week, crossed the line early in the second half. George Ford was introduced for Piers Francis soon after (with Owen Farrell moving to 12) and this led to an improvement in England’s performance and tries for Joe Marchant, Ellis Genge and Anthony Watson, while the Azzurri were unable to get any points on the board, resulting in a 37-0 final score.

 

England

No offence to Italy, but this was never a match that England should be losing. As such, I think Eddie Jones dropped the ball here by not using the match to prepare his squad even more for the trials of a World Cup.

While it was great to see Ruaridh McConnochie finally make his debut, I feel that he should have been given the full 80 minutes to get used to international rugby, as he is now going to the tournament with barely any international 15s experience. Jack Singleton is going with hardly any more experience to his name and his recent appearances have been cameos in the back row – there was no need to risk Jamie George in this game with 2 other hookers available! Moving onto another specialist position, Eddie Jones decided to take only 2 scrum halves to Japan and name George Ford as their emergency 9. As such, I would have made sure he got some time practising the position in a Test match in case he is called upon during the tournament, and what better one than in this final game against an opposition that would probably be a little more forgiving if he made a mistake.

Saying all this, it was great to see Anthony Watson moved to the 15 position. Elliot Daly has not looked completely comfortable at the position, but Watson (admittedly under less pressure) looked very calm there and I think should be given the starting 15 spot, especially as Daly could move back to 13 if Henry Slade is not 100% ready to play.

Italy

It feels like every week I’m coming on here criticising Italy for their attack, but it just isn’t good enough. I’ve been very clear at how I think the attack needs more variety and it became clear in this match. A great multi-phase move off a lineout led to a great break through Seb Negri (who was fantastic in this match) and Carlo Canna, but once they got to the England 5m line the attack stalled and they were slowly pushed back over 20 phases until they spread it wide and Benvenuti knocked on just a few metres out. England’s defensive line comes up fast and Italy had no answer to it, but something as simple as a tip-on pass or an inside ball would have kept the defence on their feet and probably also forced them to commit more players inside, giving Benvenuti the space to finish off the attack and score the try. South Africa also favour a defensive line that shoots up fast, so Italy need to be looking at their tactics if they want to have any chance of upsetting the Springboks.

It wasn’t just the attacking tactics, but also the kickoffs that perplexed me. Every time, they were kicking long, giving Ben Youngs all the time in the world to pick his spot when kicking to touch. It may have meant that Italy were getting the ball back with a lineout, but it was never with good territory. Italy really need to look at varying their kickoffs to keep the opposition guessing, while also making some of the kicks more contestable or closer to the chasing players to try putting pressure on the moment the opposition catch the ball.


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Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Georgia v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

It was a historic day on Saturday as Tbilisi’s Dinamo Arena hosted Georgia’s first home match against a Tier 1 nation. Scotland put out a strong team and it paid dividends, as tries from Ben Toolis and Rory Hutchinson helped to open up a 3-23 halftime lead. In the second half, a second for Hutchinson and tries for Darcy Graham and Scott Cummings confirmed the 10-44 victory, with Karlen Asieshvili’s try giving the home fans something to cheer.

Georgia

With Georgia not often playing against Tier 1 opposition on televised channels, it’s not very often that I get to watch them play outside of the World Cups. However, from what I have seen in recent seasons, the calls for them to replace Italy in the Six Nations are ridiculous.

In this game, Finn Russell and the Scottish team played well, but it was made easy for them as the Georgians struggled to cope with the quality of rugby they were forced to defend against. It was far too easy for Scotland to cut them apart – it felt like a highly physical training game too often. When they did manage to stop the Scots cutting them apart, it generally ended with them gifting Scotland points or territory through a penalty. Meanwhile, too many of their attacks ended in costly handling errors. The gulf in class was obvious and something that I also noticed when they played Italy during the 2018 November Tests.

This is not a critique of Georgia, more just a note that replacing Italy with them will not help anyone in the long run. There was plenty of good to see from the team: they kept going to the end, their catch and drive lineouts were a fantastic weapon and there is some quality coming trough the age groups, helped by incredible facilities. More than that, the crowd were amazing and the atmosphere seemed incredible when I was watching on TV. Georgia needs to be facing – and hosting – Tier 1 nations far more often. Directly replacing Italy in the Six Nations is not the answer, but they have outgrown the tournament they are in and something needs to be done to ensure Georgia is playing against better nations in order to continue improving.

Scotland

Georgia have become famous over the years for the strength of their pack. So many of the players who have made it into one of the top European leagues have been forwards. When you play against Georgia, you know that things will be tough in the scrum.

I make that point, so that when I say Scotland held their own in the scrums in this match, that achievement gets the recognition it deserves. Willem Nel has always been known as a good scrummager, but Allan Dell has improved so much over the recent years to make the number 1 shirt his own. Perhaps even more impressive is that their replacements Zander Fagerson and Jamie Bhatti also managed to keep the balance at the set piece.

Earlier that day, Ireland’s pack were in devastating form against Wales. With Ireland and Scotland likely facing off for the top spot in their pool, being able to nullify the Irish scrum could be a key factor in that match.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, for this I will only be focusing on the Scots for 2 reasons: 1. I don’t know enough about the Georgians to know where they have depth, and 2. By the time I post this, they will have already announced their squad!

Rory Hutchinson‘s rise at Northampton this year was already a great story, but I thought an international call-up was too soon. He has looked better with each appearance however and with 2 extremely well-taken tries on his first start, I think that he has put himself in a great position to force his way in as a bolter. I also thought that another great all-round performance from Darcy Graham, including dotting down Finn Russell’s grubber for a try, will have been enough to secure his seat on the plane.

Huw Jones is a quality player and a few years back I considered him one of the best 13s in international rugby, but the centre position suddenly looks extremely deep and he struggled to make an impact after replacing Sam Johnson in this game. I also think that Matt Fagerson will have been disappointed to be removed as he has had very little time on the pitch to prove himself worthy of a spot in the squad.


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