Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

With coronavirus fears causing Ireland’s game against Italy to be postponed, Round 4 of the Six Nations eventually kicked off at Twickenham with England’s match against Wales. Anthony Watson gave England an early lead, which was added to by Elliot Daly and the boot of Owen Farrell, the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar keeping Wales just in it for a 20-9 halftime score. Wales hit back immediately after the break with a try from Justin Tipuric, but a try for Manu Tuilagi helped England pull away, before the centre’s late red card and a yellow for Ellis Genge gave Wales a 2-man advantage, which allowed them to have the final say through tries for Dan Biggar and Tipuric again to come away with a losing bonus point, the 33-30 final score earning England the Triple Crown.

 

England

England may go down as the victors, but they came so close to shooting themselves in the foot with their poor discipline. A game between these two nations is always going to be a tetchy affair, but there were moments that England took things too far. Captain Owen Farrell saw him penalised on his own line for an unnecessary shove that sparked a brawl and was potentially lucky to not be penalised again shortly later for shoving over Dan Biggar while chasing a kick, while Joe Marler may find himself in hot water for trying to get to know Alun Wyn Jones a little too well during one scuffle. Then with less than 10 minutes left, Ellis Genge was yellow carded for persistent offending from the team and Manu Tuilagi was given a red card for a high shot on George North, which almost cost England the game as Wales scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes. Had they had another 5 minutes, I can’t help but feel that their numerical advantage would have seen them come away with the win.

10 penalties is too many for a team to give away if they want to win a game, England need to buck up their ideas if they want to improve their chances of success in the big games.

Wales

When I asked my friend Gez (a Wales fan who has contributed on some previous posts) what he thought of Wales’ performance, I got the following reply:

So we can score against 13 and can’t defend wide, narrow or against hard runners, that’s what we’ve learned here

While I fully agree that the defensive set-up needs looking at as it is allowing teams to get around them too easily, I think that Wales’ current situation needs remembering. They have just had a change in coaches so will take a moment to adapt to a new playing style, but came into this match missing a number of players who have played key roles in the team recently: Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Tomas Francis, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell. They also had Josh Navidi, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar (who I question if he as really even 95% fit) playing having recently returned from injury and had Jake Ball and Dillon Lewis go off injured during the game and Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Aaron Shingler finish the game in varying degrees of fitness. Further to that, there were other players like Owen Lane and Willis Haloholo out injured, who could have positively impacted the team.

Given that injury list, it is hard to look into Wales performance too much right now. Yes, big improvements are needed quickly if Wales want to start winning more, but it is important to not make any snap reactions now. Having a key partnership like hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies return (or even have Halaholo covering for one of these players) with a fully fit Josh Navidi in the back row will immediately make the middle of the park feel ore secure against big runners like a Manu Tuilagi, giving a better platform to build the defence off. If the issues persist with a team much closer to the ideal XV, then change will be needed.


My standout players

Manu Tuilagi‘s game may have ended on a negative, but his hard carrying helped put England on the front foot, while Anthony Watson looked great on his return from injury. Ben Youngs also put in one of his best performances in recent years, controlling the game and exploiting a number of gaps around the breakdown.

It was harder to pick out for Wales in a largely disappointing performance, but Josh Navidi clearly had a positive impact on his return from injury and lasted the full 80 minutes, while his return also appeared to free up Justin Tipuric to have more impact in the loose. Finally, a mention for Dan Biggar, who completed the full 80 minutes despite not appearing to be fully fit after his injury last weekend and did everything he could to keep Wales in the game, though it did feel like somewhat of a kick in the teeth to keep Jarrod Evans on the bench.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

We reached the halfway point of the 2020 Six Nations on Saturday with France’s trip to Wales. France’s young guns came into this match with 2 victories under their belt and took an early lead as Wales’ failure to deal with a high ball led to Anthony Bouthier’s early try, while Paul Willemse crashed over from short range, Dan Biggar’s boot keeping Wales just in touch, with a 9-17 halftime score. Romain Ntamack added a try and a further 5 points off the tee, and though Dan Biggar replied with a try and conversion of his own, France managed to hold on in the final minutes and Camille Chat earned a penalty at the breakdown with the clock in the red to secure a 23-27 victory and keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.

Wales

Wayne Pivac had great success with the Scarlets playing an expansive gameplan, but it’s not quite clicked yet for Wales. In this match, the attack looked very poor. Despite fantastic attacking talents like Gareth Davies, Nick Tompkins, Johnny McNicholl and Josh Adams in the backs, the attack often looked panicky trying to deal with France’s blitz defence.

If Wales set up the breakdown, then France were often able to reset and blitz again, pushing the Welsh back, but the team cohesiveness was not there to keep the ball moving out of the tackle with the sheer number of offloads the team was trying to throw. To me, this came back to an issue that I think Wales have been finding of late: they do not have enough physical ball carriers. They certainly have players like Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, who will carry all day, but they are not going to push the gain line back in a way that for example the Irish pack of CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy and James Ryan will, which makes it hard for Wales to get on the front foot.

Right now, George North has become a shadow of the player he used to be and this latest concussion could be accelerating the end of his international career. Hadleigh Parkes is currently one of the only players regularly making metres in the tighter areas. Personally, I think that Ross Moriarty is being used in too much of a defensive role and a couple of late carries were a good reminder of how destructive he can be when allowed to carry in attack, while I also think that Taulupe Faletau is yet to reach anything near his best following his injury nightmares and so I think another stronger carrier like Aaron Wainwright would help this team create the platform that they are currently missing.

I will be interesting to see if any changes are made ahead of Round 4.

France

Last week I mentioned how Wales really seem to be missing Shaun Edwards, this week we got to see just how much France are benefiting from having him.

The French team are full of physical players through the pack and midfield, which combined with an organised blitz defence to continually push Wales back towards their own line, making a whopping 177 tackles over the 80 minutes. They are not yet the finished article as they are giving away more penalties than you would expect from a Shaun Edwards defence and maybe aren’t hitting the tackle completion percentages Edwards woudl want (they finished on 87%), but even when they were down to 14 men (on 2 occasions!) they defended admirably and rarely looked in real trouble.

This defence will just get better over the next couple of seasons as the players gain more international experience and get to spend more time with Edwards. This is a team on their way to being world-beaters.


My standout players

For Wales, the back row pairing of Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric put in strong defensive performances while also making some dangerous carries in attack, while Hadleigh Parkes once again Carried hard in midfield to try creating a platform for the team.

For France, Antoine Dupont and Man of the Match Romain Ntamack controlled the game almost perfectly, while Gaël Fickou actually appeared more involved from his left wing position than he had at centre the last few weeks. Meanwhile, fullback Anthony Bouthier answered the questions that the Welsh kicking game asked of him, while asking questions of his own and scoring an important early try.

A Big Decision for Wayne Pivac

A Big Decision for Wayne Pivac

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

Falling like dominoes

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

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

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

Calling for reinforcements

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

The 2ⁿᵈ weekend of the 2020 Six Nations kicked off with a match begin 2 of Round 1’s winning teams. Wales travelled to the Aviva Stadium, but after a close start they found themselves going behind after Jordan Larmour stepped his way through Nick Tompkins’ attempted tackle for the opening try. Tomos Williams soon crossed and Dan Biggar converted to give Wales the lead, but it was short-lived as Tadhg Furlong barrelled over to put the Irish back ahead. The second half saw the home team pull away with tries from Josh van der Flier and Andrew Conway either side of a disallowed Hadeigh Parkes try, while Justin Tipuric crossed with the final play of the game to make the final score of 24-14 look more respectable.

Ireland

For so long, Wales have been one of the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere when it comes to the breakdown. Though they had some success early in the game, it was generally as an Irish player found themselves isolated. When the breakdown became a contest, Ireland were largely dominant.

Perhaps it helps that they have an extremely physical pack and midfield when Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are on the pitch, but whatever it is, it is hard to stop. I was critical of CJ Stander last season, but he has looked back to his best in these first 2 rounds and was the real stand-out player on Saturday. Every time Wales got something going, it felt like Stander was there bent over the man on the floor, winning the ball back or earning the Irish a penalty. Yes, he was pinged a couple of times, resulting in a late yellow card, but even a couple of those decisions were very close (by the standards that you see at every other breakdown, even if technically the calls were correct).

With Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony taking responsibility for the majority of the tackling in the back row, it allows Stander to focus on winning the ball back. The one thing this back row does lack though is significant carrying metres. It will be interesting to see how the back row’s performance changes if Caelan Doris is given that starting spot back in favour of Peter O’Mahony in Round 3.

Wales

While the big talk has been about the change of head coach from Warren Gatland to Wayne Pivac, what probably hasn’t been discussed enough is the loss of Shaun Edwards to France. Byron Hayward may be a great coach, but he is replacing arguably one of the best defensive coaches in the game and it will take time for him to settle at international level. His case certainly isn’t helped either by having some key personnel like Jonathan Davies missing.

While it is still early days, it looks like the defensive organisation needs a lot of work over the next couple of weeks. I can’t remember the last time I saw the team defend so narrow!Right from the opening minutes, Ireland were finding joy spreading the ball wide and getting around the edge of the Welsh defensive line. I can’t help wonder if this was the case against Italy as well, but just not as obvious as the Italians allowed the defence to drift better.

Why did they defend like this? Had they predicted a tighter game due to the predicted adverse weather conditions? Were they trying to defend super narrow to deal with the physicality of the Irish pack and midfield? Or is Hayward seriously miscalculating his players’ ability to cover the width of the pitch effectively from a narrow starting point?

With France up next and likely coming in off the back of 2 wins with one of the most dangerous back lines in the competition, Wales need to sort their defence out quickly.


My standout players

As I’ve already mentioned, CJ Stander was superb in his defensive work and is really looking back to his best.

Jordan Larmour continues to look assured in the starting lineup and appears to ave made the 15 shirt his own, while his fellow back 3 member Andrew Conway appears to be doing the same with the 14 shirt, putting in a great 2-way performance and making some fantastic clearing kicks.

While Wales had a poor day, Alun Wyn Jones put in another majestic performance, completing 22/23 tackles while also playing an important role in the attack with some strong carrying and deft offloads.

Hadleigh Parkes also looked back to his best after an injury-disrupted World Cup, putting in a strong defensive performance and also being the team’s primary carrier with 16 carries for 27 metres.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

The 2020 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday in Cardiff with a match between Wales and Italy. Both teams were early in the process of moving on from the Rugby World Cup with new men at the helm in Wayne Pivac and interim head coach Franco Smith respectively.

Wales came in with a number of players missing through injury, leading to George North making a rare appearance at outside centre, but they made the better start and found themselves taking an early lead with 3 penalties from the boot of Dan Biggar (my thoughts are with everyone who picked Leigh Halfpenny as their fantasy kicker this weekend) before adding 2 tries through Josh Adams. Italy fought hard but the closest they could come to scoring was at the end of the half when their 5m catch and drive lineout was dealt with. In the second half, it was all Wales, as the men in red added a further 2 tries through debutant Nick Tompkins and George North, before Josh Adams finished off his hat-trick with the final play of the game to complete a 42-0 victory.

Wales

This may have ended up a comfortable victory for Wales, but there will certainly be some things that they look at ahead of next week. The Italian scrum has not looked great in recent years, so to see it look so strong in this game makes me feel that it is in part due to Wales’ weakness in this area, something that hurt them in the latter half of last season.

Wyn Jones has looked strong at loosehead of late, moving ahead of Rob Evans and Nicky Smith, but he had a torrid time against Andrea Lovotti. Meanwhile on the other side of the scrum, things look a lot bleaker when Tomas Francis is unavailable. I think that it’s time for Sale’s WillGriff John to be given a shot in the national team.

Similarly, there were some issues for Wales at the lineout. Ken Owens is a fantastic servant for Wales but overthrew one lineout and had another throw pinged for not being straight. There was also another moment when Wales gave away a free kick for not setting up properly.

Between the scrums and the lineouts, this is an area of the game that Wales need to try and tighten up. They may have got away with it against Italy, but issues on your own set piece in a tight game are going to put you in a very difficult position.

Italy

As someone who frequently argues that Italy deserve a spot in top tier competition, watching them play can be a chore at times.

Going into this match, I was interested to see how Italy would fare with a dual-playmaker system of Tommaso Allan at 10 and Carlo Canna at 12. While they certainly got the ball moving more than in some recent matches and made almost 400m with the ball, their attack still looked horribly stifled and to be honest, I don’t think the system worked for them.

Though they had 2 playmakers, there was very little being done in the Italian attacking line to create space and break the defensive line in midfield. When you watch many teams, there will be players running crash balls or dummy runners, however watching Italy, it often felt like this was missing and that Italy were just playing the ball along the line, meaning that the defence was able to drift on them. The back rowers and forward runners did some good work but it was usually limited to just one pass out from the ruck. In players like Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Braam Steyn and Niccolo Cannone, Italy have a great set of ball carriers who they need to take advantage of in midfield. A player like Polledri could cause some real trouble if he can break through the defensive line in the centre of the pitch, while the players needed to defend against him as a dummy runner would create space for Luca Morisi, Mattia Bellini and Matteo Minozzi.

Personally, I would like to see Jayden Hayward promoted to the XV in place of Carlo Canna, as I think that his ability as a fullback still gives him some playmaking ability, but also adds a bit more physicality to help give the midfield more of a presence.


My standout players

Wayne Pivac finds himself in a great place when it comes to selecting scrum halves. Gareth Davies has been a star at the position of late and Rhys Webb is a former British & Irish Lion who will get even better once he is playing regular rugby again. But after his performance this weekend, I think that Pivac should stick with Tomos Williams for the next match. He controlled the game well in his hour on the pitch, but was also a livewire in the loose, and was one unfortunate bounce away from crossing the whitewash himself.

Josh Adams was the top try scorer at the Rugby World Cup and his hat-trick has put him in a great place to take that same award in this tournament. He may not have had many chances to stretch his legs, but he took his opportunities and is becoming a permanent fixture in the starting XV.

Finally, I want to take a moment to look at Nick Tompkins. As an England fan, I was gutted to see England ignore him and so happy to see his quality noticed by the Wales coaches. He came off the bench for a brief cameo in the first half and in that time managed to win a turnover and unleash Leigh Halfpenny (to set up Josh Adams’ opener) with a pass that looked simple but would not be as easy to execute in the moment. Coming back on later in the game, he proved that the strong start was not a fluke as he immediately looked like someone with 20+ caps to his name, slotting in comfortably at both 12 & 13 and deservedly scoring on his debut. While George North performed admirably at 13, I think the back line looked better with Topkins involved and would love to see him promoted to the starting XV next week.

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

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

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

England

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

France

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

Ireland

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

Italy

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

Scotland

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

Wales

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


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

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

The RWC2019 Debrief: Wales

The RWC2019 Debrief: Wales

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

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

RWC2019 Qualification

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

2019 Form

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

The Debrief

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool D

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool D

We are just days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.

With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Who are you looking out for during the tournament? And so we make it to Pool D:

Australia

Samu Kerevi may have 20+ caps to his name already, but I would argue that he has never really made a name for himself until this season. Though the Reds failed to make the playoffs this season, Kerevi finished in the top 10 for carries (220 – 1st), clean breaks (26 – 5th), defenders beaten (71 – 2nd) and offloads (26 – 2nd). He has carried that form into the Rugby Championship and has surely secured himself a spot in the Wallabies midfield.

Wales

The Wales squad has been relatively settled in recent years, allowing all the players to establish themselves, but for this I have gone for Josh Navidi. Having competed for minutes with Martyn Williams and Sam Warburton, he is a great openside flanker, who is at home anywhere in the back row – giving Warren Gatland more options with Taulupe Faletau out injured. Dangerous at the breakdown, he is also well accomplished at holding a player up to turn the ball over with a maul and his skills with ball in hand are massively underrated.

Georgia

Vasil Lobzhanidze was going to be my pick here, until I got the chance to watch Georgia’s warm-up matches against Scotland. While watching this, fly half Tedo Abzhandadze caught my eye and I was shocked to find that he was already a regular starter for the senior side despite being just 20 years old. Captain of the Georgian U20s team that beat Scotland and Fiji in the most recent World Rugby U20s Championship, the young 10 showed his range of skills at Murrayfield and controlled the game well. Now the question will be how he holds up in a major senior international tournament.

Fiji

I was going to write about rugby league convert Semi Radradra initially, but when push came to shove I couldn’t ignore Viliame Mata. The Edinburgh number 8 was named Players’ Player of the Year at the end of season Pro14 awards. Part of the Fiji 7s squad that won Gold at Rio 2016, he is an incredible danger in the loose with his strong running and ridiculous offloads. The thought of him, Semi Kunatani and Leone Nakarawa in the pack together is mouth-watering!

Uruguay

Probably one of the hardest to pick due to my own unfamiliarity with the Uruguayans. While I was tempted to go for Gastón Mieres, one of the Uruguayans making a name for themselves in Major League Rugby, I found myself instead picking Felipe Berchesi. Playing for Dax, who were just relegated from Pro D2, he is used to a decent level of rugby, while he has over 30 caps for Uruguay including 3 starts at RWC2015 and also featured at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens.


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Will you be picking any of these players in your squad?

Eyes On: Ireland v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Ireland v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Ireland and Wales faced off at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon in their final warm-up match ahead of the Rugby World Cup. With Joe Schmidt’s tenure as Ireland head coach finishing ending in Japan, this was his last game on Irish soil and it had a fairytale ending. Rob Kearney put the hosts ahead with a try, but Hadleigh Parkes’ try and 5 points from Leigh Halfpenny’s boot gave Wales a 7-10 lead. The second half could only be described as a siege as it felt like the entire 40 minutes was spent in the Welsh 22, with Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan crossing to give Ireland a 19-10 victory that earned them the #1 spot in the World Rankings for the first time in their history.

Ireland

Devin Toner’s omission from the Irish squad was understandable given the depth in the Irish second row and his own drop in form, but it was also a surprise for one big reason: Ireland’s lineout has been anything but secure this year. Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell are all highly impressive players, but they have struggled to get consistency when throwing in.

You can imagine that if Paul O’Connell had hair, he would be ripping it out watching recent matches; the lineout used to be such a weapon for Ireland, but it currently feels as likely to hurt them as it does their opponent. The set piece is such a vital piece of international rugby and losing the ball on your own throw as regular as Ireland have been is a big worry. They may be able to get away with it int heir pool, but it could prove costly against Scotland and will certainly be an issue if they make it to the knockouts and have to take on either New Zealand or South Africa.

Wales

Wales have a fantastic defence, but even the best of defences will be breached a couple of times if not given a break. In the second half against Ireland, Wales could not stop defending because they could not get any significant time on the ball. This match highlighted the big worry with the Wales squad that may prove costly int he World Cup: they lack carriers in the pack.

When you watch teams like England, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, France and Australia, they all have a number of forwards who will carry over and over again and regularly make at least a metre or 2 to keep the team going forwards. Even Italy are starting to get this with players like Jake Polledri and Seb Negri. Wales seriously lacked that in this match. Their pack (both starters and replacements) combined for a measly 30 metres, which was only 4 more than Josh van der Flier made on his own. It is this lack of carriers that made the omissions of Samson Lee and Rob Evans even more of a surprise as they are comfortable taking the ball in hand.

Phil, Gez and I all had Wales making it to the semifinals and eventually finishing 3ʳᵈ when we made our predictions for the tournament. If they don’t get their forwards carrying more, they will be lucky to make it past the quarterfinals.


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Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After a week off, Wales were back to competing with a World Cup warm-up match against Ireland. With Warren Gatland’s tenure finishing after the World Cup, this was his last game at the Principality Stadium, but his second string squad found themselves 3-15 down to an experimental Irish side at halftime, courtesy of a brace from Jacob Stockdale. A penalty try while Wales were down to 14 men saw Ireland extend the lead, before tries from Owen Lane and Rhys Patchell closed the gap to the eventual final score of 17-22. This result will see New Zealand take the #1 spot in the World Rugby rankings back, with Wales dropping back to 2ⁿᵈ.

Wales

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Tomas Francis, but in this match, he was seriously missed! Wales weren’t just second-best at the scrum, they were dominated! Leon Brown found himself up against a tighthead who was playing loosehead, but was still penalised at the majority of scrums, leading to him being given a yellow card after just 12 minutes on the pitch. Samson Lee came back on while Brown was in the bin, but even he couldn’t rectify the situation, while Rob Evans didn’t really fare any better on the other side. With such a dominance at the scrum, it was no surprise to see Ireland awarded the penalty try.

I understand at the moment there is a focus from many coaches to find front props who are dangerous in the loose, but the set piece is still a key component of the game. With the Australian scrum looking dangerous of late and the Georgians known for their forward dominance, Wales need to sort out their scrum quickly if they want to advance to the latter stages in Japan.

Before I move on, I just want to address Wales’ substitution during the yellow card period. With Brown going off, Wales had to sacrifice a player to bring Samson Lee back onto the field in order to complete the front row. Despite the scrum struggling, Wales chose to remove flanker James Davies. This meant that Wales were occasionally packing down with 7 men, or bringing in centre Owen Watkin on the flank. While Watkin did an admirable job, it was clear he had no idea what he was meant to be doing and for that reason, I don’t understand why he wasn’t removed (or one of the wingers) and Davies left on, which would have given the scrum more cohesion. I can understand no wanting to go a man down in the back line, but they were doing that anyway by putting Watkin into the scrum, while Davies is a highly mobile player and has high level experience of playing rugby 7s. He has even played the majority of a game on the wing for a 14-man Scarlets team. If I was looking for someone to be a hybrid flanker/centre/wing, then I would pick Davies over any of the backs on the pitch.

Ireland

The old adage is that “form is temporary, class is permanent”. Jacob Stockdale proved that over the last 2 weeks. The Ulster winger shot onto the international scene with his regular try-scoring exploits, but has gone through a somewhat fallow period. With the Irish inside defence not working well last week, Stockdale came in for criticism for flying up to try the man-and-ball tackle when facing the overlap. This week, he looked much better defensively as Ireland dealt with the Welsh attack and looked much more confident in attack. Andrew Conway could have probably finished the first try himself, but Stockdale did the right thing to get up in support and was given the chance to get on the scoresheet, while his second try was a great opportunistic moment as he picked up the loose pass from Aaron Shingler and outpaced the turning Welsh defence to score. Every time he carried in this match, he looked dangerous and it appears he may be getting back to top form at just the right time.

RWC2019 Winner & Losers

While I didn’t think Jarrod Evans had a poor game in the first half, the impact that Rhys Patchell had after coming on at halftime was immense. He controlled the game well and appeared to expand the attack, including scoring one of the tries himself. Able to cover 10 or 15, he has to make it onto the plane off the back of this performance, though whether than is instead of or as well as Evans is a matter for debate. If we assume that Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Liam Williams and Josh Adams are all guaranteed spots on the plane, it is likely that the back 3 in this match were competing for a maximum of 2 places. Owen Lane has had a horrible luck with injuries ruling him out of making his debut until this match, but he performed very well, looking decent on defence and having a good impact on the attack, including the first try. Moving over to the men in green, Dave Kilcoyne looked one of the best players on the pitch until he was removed, making a huge impact in open play both offensively and defensively. His replacement at loosehead, Andrew Porter, was unstoppable at the scrum, causing no end of problems for Leon Brown and Samson Lee. Usually a tighthead, this proof of his versatility may have just guaranteed him a place in the squad.

Staying in the front row for a moment, Leon Brown‘s torrid time in the scrums and lack of impact to make up for it around the park may have just seen him miss out on a place in the Welsh squad. With Aaron Shingler’s return to fitness, James Davies‘ removal during Brown’s sin bin period suggests that he will miss out on a spot in a Welsh back row that is still deep despite injuries to Taulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins. For Ireland, Devin Toner‘s chances of making the squad may rely on the competency of World Rugby an the citing officer after a challenge reminiscent of that which earned Scott Barrett a red card and 4-week ban. With Peter O’Mahony looking equally good at 7 as 6 and Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson both able to cover 6 and lock, it may be that Jordi Murphy will find himself surplus to requirements when Joe Schmidt names his squad.


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