Eyes On: England v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

England and Wales both got their series of warm-up matches underway with a match at Twickenham. With Eddie Jones selecting the 31-man World Cup squad the next day, England went for a heavily experimental side that became even more experimental with the late withdrawals of Henry Slade and Sam Underhill, while Warren Gatland chose to put out what appeared to be his strongest available squad. Given the selections, I thought that I was going to be in for a long afternoon watching Wales dominate, but instead England came out the gate with early tries from Billy Vunipola and Joe Cokanasiga on the way to a 21-7 halftime lead. Though Wales grew into the game, England kept the scoreboard ticking over in the second half through the boots of George Ford and Elliot Daly, resulting in a 33-19 victory that brought an end to Wales’ unbeaten streak and stopped them going #1 in the World Rugby rankings following New Zealand’s loss to Australia.

England

Remember the name Tom Curry, because he looks like he could be a star of this World Cup and the next 10 years. At just 21 years old, he has become one of the stars of the England squad and has surely nailed down the starting berth at openside flanker. In this game, he cut out the silly penalties that he was conceding in the Six Nations, and replaced that with a couple of great line breaks. He was everywhere on the pitch, to the point that I was beginning to wonder if Eddie Jones had snuck on identical twin Ben in a second 7 jersey – did anyone count the players?!

Fans will be worried about an injury that saw him substituted just 30 minutes into the match, but hopefully that was more a precaution from the coaches as opposed to anything too serious.

Wales

Every time the World Cup comes around, the buildup seems to involve stories about how Warren Gatland’s Wales are going to be the fittest team at the tournament. While their fitness has been undeniable for years, this match appeared to suggest that they have spent too much time working on fitness and not enough time playing rugby.

Despite being almost the same side that won the Grand Slam earlier this year, they looked a shadow of themselves, dropping off tackles left, right and centre – and not just against the big runners Tuilagi, Vunipola and Cokanasiga. The lineout malfunctioned something horrible on a couple of occasions, gifting Luke Cowan-Dickie a try right before halftime. Though they did get themselves back in the game, they never really looked like they would challenge for the win. While this may help them go into the tournament as underdogs, they need to get back to form quickly to get some momentum ahead of their World Cup opener against Georgia.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, as this section is looking towards the squad selections, I will not be looking at England here due to the having already selected their squad before I could write this. I do however want to take a moment to praise Lewis Ludlam, who looked completely at home on his first cap and Anthony Watson, who looked great on his return to international rugby following injury – hopefully we will see him switched to 15 for the next match.

For Wales, there were very few players who came out with many positives, but I think that Aaron Wainwright will be feeling happy after playing the full 80 minutes. With Taulupe Faletau out and question marks surrounding the fitness of some of his rivals, he has a good chance of making the squad. Tomos Williams was a late withdrawal through injury, but if he is fit he will surely have to travel as Aled Davies did little to impress, while Gareth Davies continues to struggle with his kicking game.

The clear loser from this match is Gareth Anscombe, whose World Cup dreams are over after injuring his ACL. He picked up a knee injury early in the game and I felt that he should have been removed immediately as a precaution, but he instead played on as the medics felt that he could run the injury off, which either proved completely wrong or caused things to get worse. Aaron Shingler came off the bench to play his first match since getting injured in the 2018 Pro14 final and while it is great to see him back (I’d heard rumours that his rugby career was over), he looked so far off the pace that it’s hard to imagine him being ready for the World Cup.


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RWC2019: Predicting the Wales Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Wales Squad

With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. As April came to an end, Warren Gatland announced a 42-man World Cup training squad, while players currently omitted due to injury still have a chance to make it into the list of 31 players who will jump on the plane.

There may still be a couple of months until the trimmed squad has to be announced, but I thought that it would be fun to test myself and try to predict the 31 players that Gatland will take with him to the tournament. To make it even more fun, I challenged a good friend and cross-border rival, Gez (who supports Wales and the Scarlets), to see who he was predicting so that we could see how similar our thoughts were. This is not a matter of picking the 31 we would take, but rather who we think Gatland will take, so we have tried to avoid any biases we have towards any specific players.


So without further ado, having tried to get inside Warren Gatland’s head, we think he will select…

Hooker

Ken Owens was a clear selection for both of us here. One of the best hookers in the UK, he is a proven leader and I would imagine one of the first names on the team sheet. Both of us agreed that Gatland would only take 1 other hooker (injury replacements can be brought in during the tournament) and the consensus pick was Elliot Dee, who has become Owens’ backup at international level this season.

Prop

The top 4 rather picked themselves here by being the regulars in the matchday squads. Gez and I were in agreement that Rob EvansTom FrancisSamson Leeand Nicky Smith would be the main 4, but we had differing opinions on who would take the 5th spot (both of us are predicting 5 props, in line with Gatland’s 2011 and 2015 squads).

It appears that our difference has come down to which side of the scrum they expect to give extra reinforcements too. Gez has picked tighthead Leon Brown, whereas I think that Wyn Jones scrummaging ability at loosehead will earn him the spot.

Second Row

Having spoken to Gez a little about our picks here, it would appear that we both initially went for 3 locks, but on finding our totals reaching 30 men, chose to select a 4th player at this position. Alun Wyn Jones is the captain of the squad so an obvious pick here, while his Ospreys partner Adam Beard also earns a spot along with Cory Hill. We both found that when selecting a 4th lock, Jake Ball was getting the selection over Bradley Davies, who has fallen down the pecking order at the Ospreys.

Back Row

A harder group to pick due to the number of players currently out injured or just returning from injury. Assuming they can prove themselves fit, both of us selectedJosh NavidiJustin TipuricRoss MoriartyTaulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins, which gives a good balance to the position.

Both of us felt that there would be 1 more back row selected, but we had different players in mind. My pick was Aaron Shingler, who was playing so well before picking up an injury in last year’s Pro 12 final. He is still on his way back, but if he can prove himself fit, adds a different dynamic with his ability in the lineout. Perhaps Gez has inside information on Shingler’s health as he omitted him from the 31, but went for his fellow Scarlet James Davies, which would leave Wales with a dangerous set of jackals to pick from each match.

Scrum Half

Both of us were in agreement that Gatland will take 3 scrum halves with him to Japan and it appears that neither of us are expecting some shock early return to Wales for Rhys Webb. With just 3 scrum halves in the training squad, it made it easy for both of us to select Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams and Aled Davies, though I must admit I was a little surprised not to see Scarlets’ Kieran Hardy in the training squad as reward for such a good season.

Fly Half

After combining to win the Grand Slam earlier this year, Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar are nailed on as the main fly halves. However, it appears that both myself and Gez think that Rhys Patchell will also make it onto the plane as both him and Anscombe are able to also provide cover at fullback and could also step in at centre if required.

Centre

It’s no real surprise that both of us have Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies nailed on as they have become the go-to centre pairing during Wales’ recent success. With Patchell/Anscombe able to slot in as a second playmaker in an emergency or George North (more on him shortly) able to fill in at centre, Gez and I were in agreement that only one other specialist centre will make the 31.

Gez picked Owen Watkin, who looked good when given the chance in recent Tests, however I went for the more experienced Scott Williams given his experience pairing with Parkes/Davies from his days at the Scarlets and previous internationals.

Back 3

Anyone good at maths or with an abacus to hand will have figured out that both Gez and I have 5 spots left to fill with players from the back 3. Leigh Halfpenny has not been at his best since a lengthy layoff with concussion issues, but he is still a premier defensive fullback and goal kicker, so makes the list alongside Six Nations starters Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams. And that leaves just 1 spot…

Owen Lane has looked really impressive whenever I have seen him play for Cardiff Blues, but injuries have hit at the wrong time and stopped him gaining any international experience, which I think rules him out here. Hallam Amos is a reliable option but has never been able to hold down a regular spot in the national team and I think the poor form of the Dragons will have hampered his chances. Jonah Holmes gets my vote off the back of his strong performances for Leicester and Wales this season, while he has the versatility to cover the entire back 3 if required as well as being an emergency scrum half. Gez, however has gone for Steff Evans, which I think may have been a twinge of Scarlets bias coming through as he has had a roller-coaster season, but his attacking talent could certainly come in handy against Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay.


So on the whole we had very similar squads, with just a handful of differences between individuals at the same position to round out the squad. I think part of this could be down to Gatland not being quick to change his squad and having quite a large degree of loyalty to players who have been big for him in the past even if they are going through a difficult stage. But will this be the time Gatland decides to shock us…?

Who do you think will make the squad?

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

With the Six Nations over for another year, there is just one more important job to do: picking a team of the tournament. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and this was probably the hardest so far as injuries and Jacques Brunel’s inability to settle on a team meant that some players had limited game time, while poor matches or halves of rugby harmed the chances of others. And yet despite that, at some positions I was spoiled for choice and could have picked from 4 or 5 players!

So without further ado, my team of the tournament is:

1- Allan Dell: Mako Vunipola was the choice early in the tournament and I genuinely think England missed him after his injury. Rob Evans has been getting a lot of love but the player who stood out to me was Allan Dell. Dell topped the tackle charts for Scotland with 76 (putting him 5ᵗʰ overall in the tournament) but what really impressed me was his carrying in the loose, which was so important for them given the number of carriers they lost to injury.

2- Jamie George: Did the Saracens hooker do enough to cement the number 2 shirt ahead of regular captain Dylan Hartley? In my opinion, yes. George was reliable in the lineout and a big part of the England defence, finishing the tournament joint-3ʳᵈ in the tackle count with 78, alongside Mark Wilson. What really stood out for me though was his pass to set up Manu Tuilagi for a try against Italy… I’m sure there are centres who would be proud to give a pass like that!

3- Demba Bamba: There wasn’t really any standout performer for me in this position and if I’m honest, I changed my mind as I was writing this. Kyle Sinckler was so close to getting the nod, but I swapped to Bamba at the last moment. At just 20 years old and not even playing in the Top 14, Bamba did not look out of place at all in senior international rugby despite having to take over the starting role early in the tournament following Uini Atonio’s injury. Bamba carried 42 times for 54 metres with a whopping 22 gain line successes (4ᵗʰ most of anyone) and 14 defenders beaten. He may have given away the most penalties in the tournament (8, level with Tom Curry) but this will improve as he gets more experience at this level. Watch out for him over the coming years.

4- Alun Wyn Jones: There have been people wondering if Jones has just played his last Six Nations game. If so, then he has gone out on a high. Despite all the off-field distractions surrounding Project Reset, Jones led the team to a deserved Grand Slam and led by example. He fronted up when he needed to and finished joint-6ᵗʰ in the tackle counts with 71 made and just 4 missed.

5- George Kruis: I wasn’t really enthused by Kruis’ selection at the start of the tournament, however he looked back to his best this year. Kruis was 4ᵗʰ for tackles made in the England squad with 67 (joint-11ᵗʰ overall). But his key point was his work solidifying the England lineout, amassing 17 catches himself to finish joint 3ʳᵈ in the table.

6- Josh Navidi: This was one of the hardest to pick from the quality of performances. Mark Wilson was Mr Reliable for England and Braam Steyn was a big presence for Italy. Peter O’Mahony was going to get the spot until his anonymous performance against Wales. Navidi gets the spot here and I would argue he is one of the most underrated players int he Wales squad. The Cardiff Blues back row finished 2ⁿᵈ overall with 83 tackles and 4 turnovers saw him just miss out on a spot in that top 5 list. He does not look huge but he is so strong and smart, leading to him playing a key role in the Welsh defence with a number of choke tackles and I would argue that his ability attacking in open play is underrated, making 45 metres from 30 carries.

7- Tom Curry: Jamie Richie had a great tournament being thrust into a starting role but in the end the 7 shirt has to go to Tom Curry. Sam Underhill’s injury gave Curry the chance to start and it is hard to imagine him handing the shirt over to anyone else now. Curry’s 86 tackles saw him top the charts and he was joint-4ᵗʰ for turnovers with 5. It has been rare that England have had a proper jackal at 7 under Eddie Jones and Curry has been a real breath of fresh air here. 2 tries didn’t harm his chances either.

8- Billy Vunipola: This was a shootout between Vunipola and Louis Picamoles, but Vunipola’s greater consistency over the tournament. Vunipola’s 71 carries was more than anyone else in the tournament and he finished with more metres than any other forward (231m) and 27 gain line successes (3ʳᵈ behind Braam Steyn and James Ryan). England seriously missed him last season.

9- Antoine Dupont: Not involved in Round 1 and on the bench in Round 2, Dupont took his chance and ran with it. He still has areas of him game to work on, such as controlling the game when his pack aren’t on the front foot, but he brought some great attacking quality to the French attack, finishing with 8 clean breaks (joint-5ᵗʰ overall), 17 defenders beaten (joint-4ᵗʰ) and 7 offloads (joint-2ⁿᵈ). Shockingly, he was also joint-2ⁿᵈ in the turnover charts with 6, going really under the radar with his defence.

10- Owen Farrell: This was probably the hardest pick for me. Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar split their time which made it hard to pick between them, while Finn Russell had some great moments in a struggling Scotland team. However Farrell gets the nod for me as I feel that – other than the second halves against Wales and Scotland – he was the most consistent of the 10s, while he finished with 2 assists and was the top scorer in the competition with 59 points.

11- Jonny May: I’m a big fan of May so to have seen him grow into one of England’s most reliable players in recent years has been wonderful! May carried 52 times (the most of any back, joint-6ᵗʰ overall) and made 284 metres (4ᵗʰ overall) and 11 clean breaks (2ⁿᵈ overall), while beating 9 defenders. He also played a big part in the kicking game, with his pace allowing him to outrun defenders chasing back to deep kicks and finishing with 23 kicks caught – 3ʳᵈ overall in the tournament. Oh, and there’s the small matter of his 6 tries making him the top try scorer and 4ᵗʰ highest points scorer.

12- Hadleigh Parkes: The stats may not back this selection up as much as some others, but Parkes gets the nod here over other impressive 12s Manu Tuilagi, Sam Johnson and Luca Morisi. The Welsh defence was the cornerstone of their tournament success and Parkes was one of the linchpins of that defence, putting his body on the line to protect the Welsh try line. Man of the Match against Scotland, he was involved in 2 of the Key moments against Ireland, scoring the early try and then bringing down Jacob Stockdale when he looked set to break away and score.

13- Henry Slade: When England were playing well, Henry Slade was shining. Despite having not played alongside Manu Tuilagi before this tournament, the pair worked great together and Slade’s range of skills helped him keep defences guessing and resulted in him carrying 38 times for 271 metres (8ᵗʰ overall) with 12 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ overall) and finishing with 3 tries and 2 assists. Outside centre is a difficult position to defend, but Slade was generally impressive at the position and did a great job of shutting down the channel.

14- Josh Adams: I heavily considered putting Josh Adams into my 6 to watch article ahead of the tournament but in the end he just missed out to Gareth Anscombe. Leigh Halfpenny’s concussion left room for Adams to come into the starting lineup and he grabbed the ball with both hand – just like his try against England! Adams’ 257 metres made (9ᵗʰ overall) and 9 clean breaks (4ᵗʰ overall) were the most of any player in the Welsh squad and he scored tries against Italy, England and Scotland.

15- Liam Williams: Elliot Daly and Jayden Hayward both had their moments in the tournament and Blair Kinghorn was certainly in with a shot of making the 15 spot until he got injured. Liam Williams gets the place after taking over the Wales 15 shirt in Halfpenny’s absence. He may have had a quieter tournament than we are used to, but he was so assured under the high ball (his 24 kicks caught was 2ⁿᵈ behind Daly) and this helped nullify an England team that was looking unstoppable at that point.

So there’s my XV, who makes yours?

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

The entire tournament led to this moment: Wales taking on the Irish at the Principality Stadium with not just the tournament but also the Grand Slam on the line. A home victory would earn Wales the Grand Slam, whereas a victory for the Irish would see England win the title provided they beat Scotland. Unfortunately for Ireland and England fans, Hadleigh Parkes crossed the line in the second minute and Wales didn’t look back from there with 20 points from the boot of Gareth Anscombe seeing them go 25-0 up. Ireland looked set to be nilled but Jordan Lamour’s try on the final play of the game and Jack Carty’s conversion saw them come away with a slightly more respectable 25-7 score.

Shut down

This was an incredible performance from Wales! The nerve to go for a chip deep in the Irish 22 and take advantage of Rob Kearney’s wide positioning showed Anscombe’s confidence at 10 and he reacted well to his early shift to 15 following George North’s injury. Dan Biggar ran the game well following his early introduction and having Anscombe on the pitch as well gave them the extra playmaking ability to keep the Irish defence guessing. Coming into this game, Peter O’Mahony was in contention for my team of the tournament but he was invisible in this game, such was the quality of the Welsh support.

If anything, the defence was even more impressive. Though I would argue that the Irish attack was not at its best (more on that shortly), they were limited to just 2 chances of note, one of which was their try with the result already confirmed. A Johnny Sexton crosskick looked to have sent Jacob Stockdale away down the left wing, but Hadleigh Parkes quickly caught him and brought him down to end the attack. The choke tackle used to be an Irish speciality, but the Welsh made it their own this tournament and used it to great effect once again.

With the coaching staff set to leave following the World Cup, it looks like Wales could be hitting the form they will need to make a serious run in the tournament and send their coaches off on a high.

Over-reliance

During Ireland’s success over the last couple of years, some of the standout players for them have been CJ Stander and halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. This year, none of them have been close to the player we know they can be.

Unfortunately, Joe Schmidt seemed very stuck in his ways this tournament and continued to rely on these players despite their drop in form. I was critical a few rounds ago about how long the halfbacks were kept on against Italy given the quality on the bench and this happened once again against Wales, with neither being replaced until the final 10 minutes with the victory already well beyond them. And yet despite this John Cooney and Jack Carty appeared to get the team functioning a little better – granted the Welsh may have taken their foot off the pedal slightly knowing they had won – and controlled the team on their way to the only points of the game. Stander as well also struggled to get Ireland on the front foot, generating just 9 metres from 14 carries over the 80 minutes. In comparison, Jack Conan took over at number 8 following Sean O’Brien’s replacement and made the same number of metres from just 6 carries, looking much more dangerous in attack.

Ireland have not turned into a bad team overnight, but in this match and this year’s tournament in general they have been poor. If Joe Schmidt wants a chance of finishing his Ireland career by winning the World Cup, then he needs to start selecting players on form rather than relying on players who have been stars in the past but are now struggling.

Growing options

Many teams will likely be jealous of Wale’s options at fly half, with both Anscombe and Biggar having impressed throughout the tournament. To have such quality options available, the question has often been which of them should be starting and who should be on the bench.

While Anscombe arguably brings more options to the overall attack, there have been questions over his place kicking, which has tested a lot this tournament with Leigh Halfpenny unavailable. Despite Dan Biggar being generally regarded as the better kicker, Anscombe was allowed to keep kicking duties following Biggar’s early arrival to the field this weekend and proved the faith in him well justified as he kicked a conversion and 6 penalties for a 100% kick success rate in this game.

While this not only suggests that he can hold the 10 shirt ahead of Biggar – who is an amazing player to bring off the bench – it also suggests that there may not need to be such a reliance on Leigh Halfpenny moving forward, which could open up extra options in the back 3 as it would allow the regular back 3 of this tournament (George North and Josh Adams on the wings, Liam Williams at centre) to continue playing together and building their chemistry as a group. If Halfpenny and these 3 players can keep themselves free of injury between now and the end of the season, it will be interesting to see who makes it into the back 3 for Wales’ next game.

Eyes On: Scotland v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Wales’ quest for the Grand Slam continues after they left Murrayfield with yet another victory. In a bruising encounter, tries from Josh Adams and Jonathan Davies helped Wales to a 6-15 halftime lead. Darcy Graham’s second half try in his first international start gave Scotland hope, but the Welsh defence held firm and a late penalty from Gareth Anscombe confirmed Wales’ 11-18 victory. This match leaves Scotland likely to finish with just 1 win from 5 in the tournament this season, while a win over Ireland next weekend will see Wales complete the Grand Slam.

Same old story

It feels like every round, Scotland have been left lamenting yet another injury to their squad. This week, they lost both Tommy Seymour and Blair Kinghorn in the first half alone, and Darcy Graham’s injury led to them finishing the game with 4 halfbacks on the pitch, with Adam Hastings at fullback and Ali Price on the wing. Compare the starting back lines from the opening rounds to the one that finished this game and the only similarities you will see are Laidlaw and Russell at 9 and 10 respectively.

While Scotland’s inability to make the most of their chances has been an issue throughout the tournament this year, the chopping and changing of personnel and players ending up in unfamiliar positions is never going to help as they are unable to build up any chemistry.

While Scotland have arguably been disappointing this tournament, it must be taken into account just how much they have been impacted by injuries, which for a nation with just 2 professional teams is going to be hard to deal with. Scotland finished the 2015 Six Nations with an 0-5 record and the Wooden Spoon yet half a year later, they were one poor lineout and refereeing decision away from a World Cup semifinal, so don’t rule out their chances of impressing in Japan later this year.

Bodies on the line

Wales may not have been the most exciting attacking team in this tournament, but defensively they have been outstanding. With just one match remaining, their 58 points conceded is the least in the tournament and barring the first half against France they have rarely looked like they have struggled.

A big part of Wales’ defence throughout the match was the choke tackle. While I am not a fan of it due to the risk of high tackles and head injuries, with players as strong as Josh Navidi and Alun Wyn Jones, the team do a great job of holding players up long enough to allow the defence to reorganise even if they don’t get the turnover.

The second half saw Wales have just 25% possession and 22% territory as they just made tackle after tackle after tackle. This was a team putting everything on the line and the images of Adam Beard and Hadleigh Parkes coming off battered and bruised just epitomised the effort of the team.

If they can continue to limit teams to just one or 2 tries, then they have the ability to match them for tries and get the win.

Hope for the future

One of the big positives for Scotland from all their injuries this season has been the emergence of some great young talent in the back row. Jamie Ritchie has been arguably their player of the tournament and even managed to keep the returning Hamish Watson on the bench for this game, while Magnus Bradbury – who has himself only just returned from injury – gave the back row some much-needed physicality and led the pack with 39 metres from 15 carries.

Hamish Watson came off the bench in the second half and made a real impact with a whopping 35 metres and 10 defenders beaten (5 more than anyone else on the pitch in this game) from just 5 carries. While John Barclay is a big loss with the experience he brings to the pack, the back 3 combination of Bradbury (23 years old), Ritchie (22) and Watson (27), with Matt Fagerson (20) is a unit to build the team around post-RWC2019.

 

Eyes On: Wales v England – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Wales v England – 6 Nations 2019

Round 3 saw the 2 unbeaten teams of the tournament take each other on as England travelled to the Principality Stadium to take on Wales. After a couple of strong England performances and iffy outings for Wales, the Welsh put in a great defensive performance and though England led 3-10 at half time through a Tom Curry try, they took over in the second half and two late tries from Cory Hill and Josh Adams gave them a 21-13 victory.

A step back

After two weeks of great performances, England took a huge step back against Wales. Their kicking game has been strong in the first 2 games, but that was certainly helped by first Robbie Henshaw at fullback, then France playing a winger at fullback and centres on both wings. Against Wales, they were up against Liam Williams at 15 – who often finds himself playing on the wing but is a top quality fullback – with George North and Josh Adams on the wings. This meant that they were positioned better to deal with the kicks, while they also picked up on England’s tendency for the man competing in the air to often try slapping the ball back towards his team rather than taking it on the full and adapted to it by having players like Josh Navidi and Cory Hill getting in position to win the ball when it was slapped back and also then being in position to secure the ball at the ruck if their man won the ball in the air.

With the kicking game not working as well, England needed to change their strategy, but while they played a different plan to the last 2 weeks, it was not a positive change. In the first 2 weeks, we would frequently hear the commentators calling out the names of Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Jonny May, Elliot Daly and whoever was starting on the other wing as these players were frequently on the ball, due to England really varying their attack. This week, those names were barely mentioned as the attacks generally consisted of crash balls through the forwards and then a kick from Youngs or Farrell. The wider players still looked dangerous when they were used, but they rarely were and that one-dimensional attack made it easier for the Welsh to defend and put pressure on, leading to both Farrell and Youngs having poor days with the boot.

Things clearly weren’t going right for them in the second half and yet Eddie Jones seemed reluctant to make changes in the backs, Dan Robson left on the bench once again along with George Ford (if Jones doesn’t think he can positively impact the game from that place then he needs to be swapped for Danny Cipriani!), while I doubt Joe Cokanasiga would have come on if it wasn’t for Jonny May’s head injury.

England’s bonus points have left them in a strong position to still win the tournament (assuming Wales slip up against Scotland or Ireland), but they need to get their performance back to the level of the Ireland and France matches or they could start to struggle again.

Flying high

I must admit that I was surprised at the decision to start Gareth Anscombe over Dan Biggar for this match. While I think Anscombe brings more to the team, Biggar is probably the better player defensively and has the more reliable kicking game, so I thought he would have matched up better against England.

While Anscombe wasn’t perfect, he put in an assured performance that kept the England defence going. When Biggar came on to replace him with 20 minutes left, he continued to vary the game, but his kicking game began to cause England real problems and it appeared to give his teammates confidence and help them improve their own individual kicking games, especially Gareth Davies, who usually struggles to get his kicks right. It was Biggar spreading the ball wide to George North, then coming into the scrum half position at the ruck to keep the speed of ball up and picking up Cory Hill’s superb line that resulted in the go-ahead try, while his first phase cross-kick was inch-perfect for Josh Adams to beat Daly in the air to score the second try and confirm the victory.

This close to the World Cup, Wales have 2 wonderful options at fly half (with Rhys Patchell, Rhys Priestland and Jarrod Evans providing great depth behind them) and if they can work together to improve each other’s weaknesses and keep each other playing at their best every week, then Wales are going to be tough to overcome.

A young star

Sam Underhill’s injury may have given Tom Curry a chance that he will never look back on. Despite being only 20 years old and having just a few caps to his name, Underhill’s injury and those of some more experienced back rowers opened the door for Tom Curry to take the number 7 shirt for England in this tournament and it doesn’t look like he has any intention of giving it back!

While he may have given away a couple of penalties in the tournament, he has been a nightmare for opposition teams at the breakdown, while his 25 tackles completed was the most of any player in the match. As he is growing into his role, he also appears to be taking a larger role in the attack, with his 24 metres made off of 7 carries the 3rd most of any forward in this match, behind Billy Vunipola (51m from 20 carries) and Ross Moriarty (35m from 20 carries).

Such have been his performances, I would be shocked if Eddie Jones were to drop him when other options are available and at just 20 years old, he has the potential to go on to be an England great, feature in 3 World Cups and captain the country in the future. That may sound like a bold prediction for someone with just a few caps, but his age means that he is still some years from his best and that experience will put him in prime position for a leadership role as the newer faces begin to appear following this World Cup campaign.

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Wales came to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday looking for a record-equalling 11 consecutive victories. After being handed victory by the French last week, Warren Gatland chose to make 10 changes to his squad and it may have backfired as Braam Steyn scored the only try of the first half compared to 4 penalties from Dan Biggar, for a 7-12 halftime score. Wales improved again in the second half with tries from Josh Adams and Owen Watkin, while Edoardo Padovani scored late to make the final 5 minutes interesting but the Italians could not push on for a losing bonus point and Thomas Young had a try disallowed at the death, resulting in a 15-26 final score.

 

Too many changes

It’s a familiar tale for Wales under Warren Gatland: a match against a weaker opposition that everybody expects to be an easy victory result in a raft of changes to the starting lineup. The starting team put in a poor performance and struggle to pull away, leading to a bevy of early substitutions as the usual starters are forced to come on to save the game.

I felt that last week’s halfback partnership of Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe should have started again this week to get used to playing together at international level, but instead Dan Biggar was brought back in with Aled Davies at 9. Biggar did well off the tee but struggled to create anything in open play, while his kicking out of hand was poor at times with kicks going out on the full and one cross-kick to Josh Adams deep in the Wales half won by Padovani to put Wales under unnecessary pressure. Davies looked largely out of his depth and his hesitation at the back of the ruck and maul led to a couple of big turnovers for Italy.

Young and Josh Navidi did everything they could to win ball back and give the Welsh a platform to attack from, but the back line looked disjointed, likely due to the lack of time playing together as a unit, which limited the effectiveness of a dangerous back 3 (Josh Adams, Jonah Holmes and Liam Williams).

I understand wanting to get experience for the next players up and testing the depth of your squad, but this close to the World Cup it feels like there are some key positions that are not yet sorted and it means that the players are not playing together regularly enough to build up a chemistry. Not only that, but with bonus points now being part of the Six Nations, Wales have potentially put their position in the table at risk by failing to come away with 4 tries against Italy, which is something that I can see most teams doing.

Signs of improvement

Italy may be on a disappointing run of results in the Six Nations, but there are clear signs of improvement under Conor O’Shea. With so many influential players having retired over recent years, the Irishman has not just been working to improve the national team, but the whole of Italian Rugby. Things are clearly starting to improve in the domestic game with Benetton currently sitting 2ⁿᵈ in their Pro14 conference and 3 wins for Zebre, the U20s are on the up and bringing through talent for the national team, who are playing a much more attractive and well-rounded brand of rugby than they used to.

In the first half especially, their defence held strong and it was only moments of indiscipline that allowed Wales to get on the scoresheet. They scored the same number of tries as Wales, made 5 clean breaks to Wales’ 4 and on the day had a much more effective lineout. In recent years, they have found themselves falling off at the end of matches, the last 15 minutes was probably their best period of the game against Scotland last week and they held their own once again this week, with Padovani finishing off a well-worked try near the end.

There are still areas where they can improve, such as their discipline, their control of the game via the halfbacks, the scrum and their general depth of talent, but this is a team that is clearly going in the right direction and O’Shea should be commended for this.

Options in the back row

Arguably Italy’s star player in this game was openside flanker Braam Steyn. The South African-born Benetton flanker’s 24 metres from 12 runs was the most by an Italian forward, his 20 tackles was the most by any man on the pitch (next was Thomas Young – 15), he was one of the main targets in the lineout, won a couple of turnovers… oh and scored the opening try!

Jake Polledri’s injury has been a shame as it is a big loss to the Italian back row, but the back row of Steyn, Seb Negri and captain Sergio Parisse have played well and led by example. When Polledri is back from injury, I would love to see Conor O’Shea find a way to get all 4 of them into the starting XV, potentially by moving Negri into the second row to free up a spot for Polledri on the flank.

Will O’Shea do this, or will he choose to keep one of them as a impact player off the bench?