Bigger Bench? Big Thumbs Up!

Bigger Bench? Big Thumbs Up!

The Northern Hemisphere club season may not be fully over yet (the Top 14 playoffs continue until mid-June) but eyes are already turning to international rugby with the beginning of the World Rugby U20s Championship today.

With my focus having been on the Premiership and Pro14 and already looking ahead to the World Cup, I must admit that the U20s fixtures yesterday caught me unprepared, so I was very surprised when I saw the matchday squads consist of all 28 players in the squad.

This is a change being trialled in the tournament. The number of possible substitutions remains at 3 in the front row and then 5 more, but the usual 8-man bench is extended to 13.

Personally, I absolutely love this trial and hope that it comes into practice through more tournaments in the next couple of years. With the way that the game has evolved in terms of player safety, substitutions have become more important than ever, so to have 4/8 positions on the bench filled by specialists (2 props, hooker, scrum half) is extremely limiting. Expanding the bench to 13 players means that you can have cover for every position (maybe just 1 winger and 2 back rows) which allows for much better reactions to injuries and also more tactical flexibility, without putting teams with less depth at too much of a greater disadvantage by still only allowing 8 total replacements.

While it’s still early days, I’m really excited by this trial and can’t wait to see how things go moving forwards.

Uncapped XV

Uncapped XV

With a number of players missing at least part of the 6 Nations due to injury, this tournament was a chance for a number of players to make not just their tournament debuts, but also win their first caps. Matthieu Jalibert was unable to take much of his chance following an injury in his first half of senior international rugby, but other players like Jordan Larmour, James Davies and Jake Polledri really shone when given their chances. With the World Cup on the horizon early next season, a number of other players have also made their international debuts in the last Autumn and Summer Test windows – such as 2018 6 Nations Player of the Championship Jacob Stockdale, who made his Ireland debut in June 2017.

Thinking of all the players who have impressed after making recent debuts, I started thinking of the players who haven’t even got caps to their name that could impress if given the chance. This list will be a combination of young players who likely have long international careers ahead of them and other players whose chance of getting capped is likely all but gone. As you read you’ll probably notice a slight bias towards players based in the UK, especially Premiership-based players. I have tried to be as fair as possible, but as the Premiership and Pro14 are the leagues I know best there are bound to be players I have missed – especially at less glamorous positions like the tight five – so feel free to let me know if you think I’ve missed someone.

Loosehead prop – Beno Obano: Obano could quite possibly have been capped at the start of this year’s 6 Nations tournament due to Ellis Genge’s injury and Joe Marler’s suspension, but was unfortunate to get injured himself in the build-up. A strong carrier and tackler, the 23-year old cousin of Maro Itoje is developing into a key player for Bath and will likely be challenging for a spot in the England squad after the World Cup. Honourable mentions: Thomas du Toit, Ox Nché

Hooker – Asafo Aumua: Aumua has the distinction of playing for the All Blacks twice before even making an appearance in Super Rugby, but is still eligible for this list due to the games being uncapped matches against the Barbarians and a French XV. Aumua’s pick here comes from the incredible talent he showed during the U20s World Championship on the way to winning the title. His record with the Baby Blacks stands at 7 tries from 14 games, incredible figures for any layer, let alone a hooker. His ability in the open is what really draws the eye and similar to Dane Coles his pace is going to be a real weapon that will catch opposition players out. Honourable mentions: Tom Dunn, Santiago Socino

Tighthead prop – D’Arcy Rae: Another player who almost made his debut in this 6 Nations due to players in front of him being absent, Glasgow prop Rae made 18 appearances for the Scotland U20s including 2 World Championships and 2 6 Nations tournaments. The lack of Scottish Pro14 sides may be limiting his chances of getting capped in the near future, but he is someone to watch out for after the World Cup, especially considering WP Nel is 31 years old and has missed a number of internationals over the last couple of years. Honourable mention: Nicky Thomas

Second rows: Tadhg Beirne & Matt Garvey: I will be shocked if Beirne remains on this list much longer. He has excelled for Scarlets in recent years and has signed for Munster on a 2-year deal. He is able to play in the back row as well but is definitely at his best in the second row and I can see him striking up a dangerous partnership alongside Iain Henderson in the middle of the Irish scrum. At 30 years old, I will be shocked if Garvey gets capped, but he is an extremely reliable lock who can also play flanker. He has good leadership experience and his physicality is a big part of the Bath team. Unfortunately for him, second row is one of the deepest positions in the England squad, with the current crop all younger than him, so it would likely take a monstrous injury list to see him wear the rose. Honourable mention: James Gaskell

Blindside flanker – Akira Ioane: Reiko Ioane is firmly entrenched in the All Blacks squad now and I think it is a matter of time before his brother Akira joins him in the black shirt. The flanker has started the season so well for the Blues and is one of the leading try scorers with 5 from 4 games. Vaea Fifita has impressed for the All Blacks recently, if he and Ioane push each other to be the best they can, I feel sorry for their opposite number! Honourable mention: Brad Shields, Lewis Ludlow

Openside flanker – Kwagga Smith: a superstar on the 7s circuit, Kwagga Smith has been an increasing part of the Lions’ success over recent years. With Commonwealth gold and Olympic bronze medals to his name, his pace and elusiveness is something different to the classic behemoths that are often seen representing the Springboks. Playing for the Barbarians against the all Blacks at the start of November, Smith was one of the best players on the pitch. Hopefully with Rassie Erasmus taking over from Allister Coetzee we will soon see Smith starring for South Africa. Honourable mention: Luke Wallace, Mike Williams

Number 8 – Zach Mercer: Regular readers will already know that I am a massive fan of Zach Mercer. He is such a good technical player and makes up for his lack of bulk with good footwork and handling skills. He has been a superstar for the U20s and for Bath over the last couple of years and has already been involved in the England squad, first as an apprentice player and then as a regular squad member following injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. Unfortunately, illness robbed him of the chance to make his debut against Italy, but I expect him to become a regular in the England squad after the World Cup, if not beforehand. Honourable mention: Ruan Ackermann

Scrum half – Dan Robson: I don’t know how Robson has gone so long and not been capped by England! A star for Gloucester and more recently Wasps, the scrum half has featured for the Saxons and attended some England camps, but has generally fallen foul of Eddie Jones’ policy to only name 2 halfbacks in the England squad. His attacking play is outstanding and he also controls the game so well, hopefully with Ben Youngs currently injured he will be given his chance to impress in the Summer Tests against South Africa. Honourable mentions: Ben Vellacott, Ben Spencer, Willi Heinz

Fly half – Gareth Steenson: Ireland’s loss has been Exeter’s gain as Steenson’s decision to play outside Ireland has denied him to represent the country of his birth. The Exeter fly half controls the game so well and is a highly accurate goal kicker (he won the Premiership Golden Boot award in the 2016 awards) with nerves of steel, as shown by his kick in extra time to win the Premiership Final in 2017. He would have had solid competition for the 10 jersey against Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan, however I think his reliability would have been enough to see him potentially make the bench for Ireland. Honourable mentions: Damian Willemse, Marcus Smith, Brock James

Inside centre – Jimmy Gopperth: OK, maybe I cheated a little with this pick, but Gopperth has often played 12 for Wasps when Danny Cipriani has also been available and I don’t see that changing with the arrival of Lima Sopoaga next season, plus there were clearly enough other talented fly halves to try picking from! To think that last season’s Premiership Player of the Season would probably not get a look-in with the All Blacks shows the quality of New Zealand rugby, but his quality compared to other Kiwis is a moot point as he has been playing outside New Zealand since 2009 with Newcastle, Leinster and currently Wasps. A reliable kicker, Gopperth has also shown how good he is in an attacking sense playing outside Danny Cipriani over the last couple of seasons. I look forward to seeing how Wasps’ Kiwi 10/12 axis works next season. Honourable mention: Bill Meakes

Outside centre – Vince Aso: Whether on the wing or at 13, Aso has been dynamite for the Hurricanes. His partnership with Ngani Laumape was huge for the Canes last season and saw him finish with 14 tries in the last Super Rugby campaign – with only Laumape (15) scoring more! He has started the 2018 season well with 2 tries and will surely love to join his cousins Akira and Reiko Ioane in the national team. The centre positions are very much up for grab at the moment, whether before or after the World Cup, I will be shocked if Aso doesn’t get a chance in the next couple of years. Honourable mentions: Joe Marchant, Izaia Perese, Henry Trinder, Robbie Fruean

Wings – James Lowe & Nathan Earle: 25 tries in 52 Super Rugby matches for the Chiefs puts Leinster winger Lowe on this list. Lowe has featured for the NZ Maori team – he was at fullback against the British and Irish Lions – but found himself competing in too deep a position to make the All Blacks squad before moving to Ireland. One of the last players able to qualify using the 3-year residency rule, if he continues to match this sort of form over the next couple of seasons we could see him in the green or Ireland soon enough. Earle is another player who has already turned out for his country but only in an uncapped match. I remember seeing Earle play for the U20s and thinking at the time what an incredible talent he looked. With Sarries focusing on bigger names like Ashton, Williams and Maitland, Earle’s opportunities have been limited but he has taken his chances well over the last 2 seasons and got himself firmly on Eddie Jones’ radar. With bags of pace but also deceptively strong, a move to Quins next season will hopefully give him the chance to play more regular rugby and prove he deserves to be in the England squad. Wing is a very deep spot for England at the moment with a number of young individuals. I won’t be shocked to see him capped within the next year, but think he may need to wait until after the World Cup to push for a regular starting spot. Honourable mentions: Ben Lam, Keelan Giles, Alex Lewington, Joe Cokanasiga, Gabriel Ibitoye

Fullback – Jason Woodward: I’ve talked about Woodward’s quality before (he was selected ahead of none other than “The Bus” Julian Savea for the Hurricanes in their 2016 Super Rugby final victory) and he has backed it up for both Bristol and Gloucester. Capable of playing at outside centre or across the back 3, Woodward’s made the 15 shirt at Kingsholm his own with a series of wonderful performances. A former New Zealand U20s player but also qualified for England, Woodward was called up to a training camp in May 2017, but has not yet been named in a squad. With Mike Brown likely nearing the end of his England career, Mike Haley off to Ireland and Anthony Watson injured, could a strong end to the season propel Woodward into the squad for the Summer Tests against South Africa? Honourable mentions: Mike Haley, Melani Nanai, Phil Dollman

Eddie’s Forgotten Men?

With a large number of regulars unavailable for selection due to injury, suspension or being on the Lions Tour, I’m sure that many players who have been playing for the England Saxons or on the fringes of the Elite Player Squad felt that this summer’s tour to Argentina would be the perfect chance to show Eddie Jones they deserve a place in the EPS next season. I expect many of them, along with a number of fans, were surprised when Jones selected a number of young, uncapped players, many of whom were likely expecting to feature for the England U20s in Georgia this summer.

It is possible that Eddie has decided to use this tour against one of the ‘weaker’ top tier nations as a chance to blood youngsters with the pressure largely off them, as some of them could possibly be competing for a place in the 2019 World Cup Squad. Regardless of the reasoning, these players impressed against the Barbarians and in their games against the Pumas, winning all 3 games this summer, with many of the debutantes putting in great performances.

However, it does feel that there are some players who were overlooked for this squad that are young enough to still be around for the foreseeable future and also have performed well enough at club level to feel they should have been selected ahead of some of the youngsters. I will be the first to say that Eddie Jones’ record with England so far means that he has much more of an idea about who deserves selection than I do (he has stated that he has over 60 players who are competing for a spot in the EPS), so this is by no means a rant about players who should have gone or an attack on players who have been selected, but instead a look at some players who will surely be hoping that they are given a shot in the near future.

 

Dan Robson

Every time I see Dan Robson play for Wasps, a bit of me dies inside remembering how Gloucester let him leave to pursue more game time. Gloucester’s loss has certainly been to Robson’s – and Wasps’ – gain, as he has in my opinion become one of, if not the best, English scrum halves. His competition with Joe Simpson has brought out the best of both players at Wasps and with them having topped the Premiership table and come so close to winning the final, you would have expected at least one of them to be in contention for an England call-up. With Ben Youngs taking the summer off for family reasons, I felt that this would be the perfect time for Robson (who impressed for the Saxons in South Africa this time last year) to get a chance in the first team, however he instead missed out to 20-year-old Jack Maunder, who may be a good player (I haven’t seen enough of him to be able to form an opinion) but was not included in Exeter’s matchday 23 for either of their playoff games at the end of the season and barely featured against the Pumas.

After the Premiership final, James Simpson-Daniel tweeted that Robson should be in the England matchday squad “every game next season”. As a Gloucester fan, I may be biased towards our former player, but I find it hard to agree with that sentiment.

Matt Kvesic

After the season that Matt Kvesic has had, I am not surprised that he was not included in this squad. Finishing last season with the most turnovers of any Premiership player was not enough to get him into the squad so there was no way that he would feature this summer after dropping behind Lewis Ludlow and Jacob Rowan in the Gloucester pecking order. Moving to Exeter should be good for Kvesic, but he will be up against fierce competition for the 7 jersey even at club level from the impressive Don Armand, who fully deserves his international call-up.

With England missing 3 players from their back row this summer (Billy Vunipola, James Haskell and Tom Wood), Eddie Jones took the chance to blood some young talent in the form of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, who both excelled when on the pitch. Zach Mercer, who was fantastic leading the U20s in Georgia, will surely also come into consideration as another back row option (I would rate him above the Curry twins) and has the versatility to play multiple positions. I feel that the changing of the guard may have begun at 6 and 7 for England, however I do not think that Matt Kvesic will be high on Eddie’s list next season.

Danny Cipriani

Cipriani’s return to Wasps has not had the positive impact on his international career that I’m sure he was hoping for. Though he has spent some time training with England, his last cap was in August 2015 and he has not been included in Eddie Jones’ squads so far. The decision to call up Alex Lozowski – Owen Farrell’s backup at Saracens – in recent squads as a third fly half option suggests that Cipriani is not in Eddie’s immediate plans. Furthermore, having Henry Slade (recently classed as a centre but with plenty of experience as a fly half) in the squad gives Eddie Jones another option and the selection of Piers Francis (currently at the Blues but about to move to Northampton) means that things are not looking good for Cipriani, especially considering Max Malins will soon be graduating from the England U20s and will be looking to increase his playing time over the next few seasons.

Alex Goode

I really feel for Alex Goode as he has been a quality player for Saracens over the last few years. Unfortunately his style of play does not seem to match what Eddie Jones wants from a fullback, so he has been unable to make the squad despite Mike Brown’s drop in form over recent seasons (though he looked much more like his old self in the second Test against the Pumas). Further to this, Mike Haley seems to be the second choice at 15 these days for England, though even he was deemed surplus to requirements for the summer tour, so it looks like Goode will find his international chances limited while Eddie Jones is in charge.

Luther Burrell

Burrell quickly fell out of favour with Eddie Jones after a poor start to 2016’s summer tour to Australia. A strong runner, Burrell is fighting with Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi (when fit) for at best 2 places in the EPS, and when you consider the go-to England centre pairing recently has been Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph, there is no guarantee any of the 3 would make the starting lineup – though I would personally pick Te’o/an on-form Tuilagi over Joseph. Much like with Cipriani, I think Jones’ willingness to play a fly half in the centre will make it hard for the 29-year-old to add to his caps in the near future.

Christian Wade & Semesa Rokoduguni

I doubt many people are shocked to see these names on the list. Christian Wade equalled Dominic Chapman’s record for Premiership tries in a season but continues to be considered surplus to requirements by Eddie Jones. Semesa Rokoduguni has not featured for England since his Man of the Match performance against Fiji in November 2016 but is another great talent and finished joint third on the list of try scorers in the 2016/17 Premiership season with 10 tries, behind only Wade and Exeter’s James Short – who could also consider himself unlucky to not be selected.

There have been questions previously about their work rate in defence but it has appeared to me that they have both improved in this area, and they both clearly bring a lot to their club’s attacks – both are full of pace and where Wade is elusive, Rokoduguni is strong – so I am very shocked that they are continually overlooked for the EPS.

With Nowell, Watson and Daly all away on Lions duty, I was sure that these two would have been given a chance to prove themselves against Argentina, however Eddie Jones continues to pick Marland Yarde – for reasons that I can’t understand – and handed debuts to Denny Solomona and Nathan Earle, while also calling up Joe Cokanasiga from London Irish. Solomona is no surprise at all as he was one of the stars of the season on the wing and much like Wade and Rokoduguni his potential in attack outweighs his possible defensive frailties (as we saw in the 1st Test). He also needed to be capped soon in order to be eligible before World Rugby’s new residency laws take effect. I haven’t seen Cokanasiga play so can’t comment on his ability, but to play for England after making your Championship debut this season is a huge step up. Nathan Earle impressed me for the U20s a couple of years ago, but his game time has been very limited for Saracens and I was therefore surprised to see him called up. That said, I was highly impressed by his performance against the Barbarians and I hope that he gets regular time for Saracens next season in order to push for a regular England spot – though I will be happy if he misses the Gloucester games!

Another player who could easily come into the mix in the next few seasons will be Gabriel Ibitoye of Harlequins. A contender for the World Rugby Junior Player of the Year award alongside his U20s captain Zach Mercer, Ibitoye often looked a real danger in Georgia and will only improve as he gets more game time.

Eddie Jones is not the kind of man to bow down to fan pressure, so I feel that it may be a while before we see either Wade or Rokoduguni as regulars in the EPS. I think their best chance to play for England over the next few years would be to have a word with Simon Amor about featuring on the 7s circuit.

 

What do you feel about this list? Is there anyone that you think I missed? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

The Stars of Tomorrow: A few takeaways from England U20 v Italy U20

While many people are focusing on England’s upcoming June Tests in Australia and the Saxons’ Tour of South Africa, it is also time to look at the international stars of the future in the World Rugby U20 Championship. The England boys had a poor 6 Nations, finishing in 5th place with a win in Italy their only victory in the campaign. At this year’s tournament, being hosted in Manchester, the Italians were England’s first opponents ahead of future group fixtures against Australia and Scotland. After a tense 1st half, the hosts ran away with the game in the 2nd half to win 48-10 and top the group after Round 1.

Below are a few takeaways from last night’s game:

  • Though England ran away with it after half time, the 1st half was a tight affair, with both teams making errors and struggling to take advantage of any areas of dominance. With the squad having only assembled a week previously, I think this poor start was more due to players having to gel together so should not be too much of a worry. 4 of the starting XV were making their débuts at this level (3 of those in the back line) and a further 2 players came off the bench for their 1st U20s appearances, so it will take a bit of time for players to get used to unfamiliar combinations and tactics to what they are used at their clubs. In this regard, it is very lucky that Italy were the first opponents as, being the weakest team in the group, this gave England the chance to still win comfortably whilst not playing the best rugby. However, England must play with much more accuracy in their remaining matches to give themselves the best chance of victory.
  • What a season it has been for Harry Mallinder! He’s had a great season with Northampton and looked very impressive on his U20s début. With team captain Jack Walker on the bench, Mallinder was picked to captain the side last night, but if he felt any extra pressure, he certainly didn’t show it, even after the early substitution of fly half Theo Brophy-Clews. Much of England’s best play involved Mallinder, most notably his inch-perfect kick for Sam Aspland-Robinson’s try. He also nailed 5 kicks off the tee, including a beautiful touchline conversion, and was rightly named man of the match. If he continues to play like that I would be very surprised if he is not in the running for the honour of being named World Rugby Junior Player of the Year. As was mentioned in the commentary last night, a number of players have graduated from the U20s to the senior England team in recent years, including Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and former U20s captains Jack Clifford and Maro Itoje. With such a wide variety of skills, if Mallinder can continue to build on this season, I doubt it will be long until he is getting capped at senior international level and I look forward to seeing him impress over the next few years (though I’d appreciate it if he has poor games against Gloucester).
  • England’s line-out performance was poor for much of the match. Especially in the 1st half, a number of line-outs were either turned over or were inaccurate, hampering the team’s ability to get anything going off the first phase and almost gifting Italy a try. Even England’s second try only came about as a result of Brophy-Clews reacting quickly to an overthrow in the Italian 22, though this did lead to him going off injured. My hope is that this was just down to limited time training together, so it was good to see Martin Haag keeping faith in starting hooker Jack Singleton until late in the 2nd half, by which point the lineout appeared to be functioning much better. The set piece is such an important area of the international game, so I’m sure there will be work done to make sure this doesn’t happen again in later matches.
  • Though Engalnd’s line-out may have struggled for much of the match, the scrum was much less of an issue. Although the English pack weighed less than the Italians, they held their own in the early stages and by the end of the match had almost complete dominance, even winning a penalty try from a 5 metre scrum. Once the lineout began to function better, this strength was also seen in the power of the English driving maul, which led to Singleton’s try.
  • As in every tournament, strength in depth is vital. England picked up a number of injuries during this match, hopefully none of them serious. It shows the strength in this squad that their captain was able to be left on the bench for the majority of the game. Zach Mercer has a great impact on the game after coming off the bench and I thought that substitute scrum half Harry Randall looked lively on his début as was unfortunate not to score a try of his own just before the penalty try. Not only is this good to see for the team in this tournament, but with many of these players being available for the next couple of seasons, it bodes well for the future prospects of the U20s team, and also the senior team in the future.

 

For an opening match, I think there was much for the coaching staff and fans to be happy about. While it must be taken into account that Italy are not at the same level as England, this was a good match to prepare for the tougher tests to come. Next up is Scotland on Saturday, a match that could decide who tops the group. Good luck boys…